Sunday, November 19, 2017

Oldies, Buuuut...Goodies?!

Oldies,...

Last week, I became fascinated with a "drama in poetry" book by Mel Glenn. The title of the book is The Taking of Room 114. A friend of mine, and fellow teacher, came across it in a used bookshop and thought she might find something in it to share for our poetry study at school. After she read it, she knew the content was definitely not for sixth graders. It was geared more towards high school students. Still, she was kind enough to share it with me and thought I'd find it interesting. And I did.

The Taking of Room 114 is a about a history teacher who takes his class hostage one day. Each poem is a different perspective from different people, primarily from students. Every student has their own tale to tell about their own lives before the actual incident takes place. Glenn does an incredible job of saying so much in just a few lines of poetry. The reader completely understands the situation. I found it fascinating that it was a satisfying tale. I liked it enough to seek out a copy of my own and look into what else Glenn has written.

Mel Glenn has written several "poetry dramas," and I've read two, so far, and have another on my TBR shelf. These books are not recent releases (published in the late 1990s). In fact, when I decided I wanted my own copy of The Taking of Room 114, I had to search online for it and purchase a good, used copy from a third party seller through Amazon.

My search also brought me to his award-winning poetic drama, Who Killed Mr. Chippendale?: A Mystery in Poems, which I really enjoyed. A high school teacher is shot on the high school track, early one morning before school, and no one knows who killed him or why. Again, you hear from different characters through poetry. The cast of characters include students, faculty, the police, and a guidance counselor. It really is quite good, and my favorite of the two! (And much easier to get your hands on.)

This type of poetry is a shorthand of prose. I think it's much more difficult to convey a message with a few lines than to write pages of descriptions. I didn't expect to like Glenn's style as much as I do. So, if you're looking for something a little different, but well-written, I definitely recommend Glenn's Who Killed Mr. Chippendale?: A Mystery in Poems for a tasty literary snack.

Buuuut...Goodies?!

Speaking of 'oldies', I just finished reading Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews, published in 1979. I found a copy of it at a library sale, and I had heard several of my book club friends express how they loved it as teenagers. Now, mind you, they didn't say it like it was a great book. These grown, college-educated women would giggle when they mentioned it and talk of how they used to hide it from their parents and read it. I knew the premise was about children being locked in an attic, but I had no idea what was in store for me when I read this novel. Or why a teenager would feel the need to hide it from their parents. But I found out.

Flowers in the Attic is a horrible and completely fascinating story about four children who are locked in their grandmother's upstairs room and attic, while their mother tries to find her way back into her very rich father's good graces. He doesn't know she has four children, and he wouldn't approve, so the children are hidden away in an unused bedroom on an isolated wing of the father's mansion. Only the mother and grandmother know the children exist in the house.

Seldom have I read a book where I was so mortified and intrigued at the same time. The grandmother is pure evil, hiding behind the guise of a devout, pious, religious woman. (Religious zealot would be an understatement.) She controls the children by telling them God sees everything they do, and He punishes those who disobey. There are even paintings depicting hell and demons in the room, to remind the children to be good. And all this? Is the very least of it.

While I could not put the book down, and devoured it in a couple of days, I don't think I'll read the rest in the series. I considered it, but find that the ending of the first book satisfies me enough to let it go. It was a bit heart wrenching to get through the first one, and I'd rather leave it at that. I'm glad I read it,...I think. I mean, it's written well,...but the content isn't something I'll be able to forget anytime soon.

After I read the novel, I read online that Andrews once said she wanted her books to be fast reads, something you couldn't put down. Well, it certainly was that.

Now, I want to bathe my reading brain in something light and airy and happy. Let's see what I can find on my TBR shelf that suits me...

Happy reading!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

About A Gentleman

I finished Amor Towles' novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, today. I would not consider it an easy read due to the amount of Russian history mentioned throughout the book, but, for me, it was twice the pleasure to research and learn about Russia, as I enjoyed the novel. I don't think, however, you have to understand Russian history to enjoy the humanity of the book,...but I'm more than a bit of a nerd, so....yeah. I also listened to the same classical music Count Rostov enjoys in the book. Like I said, nerd alert. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, Count Rostov is put under house-arrest in 1922 due to a poem he published which was considered rebellious against the government. Rostov is an intellect and a gentleman, and he must learn to make a new life for himself within the walls of a hotel. He is witty and charming and sincere. Rostov becomes friends with the employees of the hotel and with a young girl, Nina, whose father frequents the hotel. Rostov's life is not without challenges in his confinement, especially as the Russian government seems to constantly change its course, and its rules, as years pass. It is, in fact, the way he faces his challenges that makes him so endearing.

One of my favorite scenes in the book (one of many, I might add) is when a lovely lady friend mentions to Rostov that "everyone dreams of living in America" because of its 'conveniences' - such as dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, toasters, and the like. Count Rostov responds:

"I'll tell you what is convenient," he said, after a moment. "To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment's notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children all together. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka - and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most."

I know I will carry Count Rostov in my heart for a very long time. He is, most definitely, my kind of gentleman. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

In A Heartbeat

How many times have you wondered how easily your life could have taken a different course? Can you look into your past and remember one moment that changed everything? If you're like me, you can think of several small moments you didn't realize were big moments - life changing moments - at the time. The two books I've read this past week touch on life changing moments and characters who look back in their pasts to wonder, "What if...?"

The Life We Bury, by Allen Eskens, is a fiction novel about a young man, Joe Talbert, who decides to interview a convicted murderer that is dying of cancer. Joe's assignment, for his freshman English college class, is to interview someone and write a biographical paper on the person. It is through interviewing the convicted killer, and researching the murder case, that Joe begins questioning many things. When he finds that the convict was once a decorated war hero, he wonders what moment in the man's life turned him into the kind of man that would kill a fourteen-year-old girl.

There is more than one layer to this story and more than one character who questions what moments in their pasts changed the course of their lives forever. It is a good debut novel, and I found it to be a good weekend read. I felt parts of it were a bit predictable, but I enjoyed it.

The other book, which I am still reading, is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I will go ahead and tell you, this book is not for your light reader. While it is an excellent novel, it is heavy with Russian history - something I'm not very familiar with - and its beauty lies in being able to describe how certain moments in life feel. Not the big moments, the small ones.

The premise of the novel is that a gentleman, convicted of being a rebel against the government of Russia in 1922 for writing a poem, is sentenced to live out his life in a hotel in Moscow. If he leaves the hotel, he will be shot on sight. While the gentleman lives out his sentence in the hotel, he also finds himself looking back at his life. He feels there are critical moments where he wishes he'd made a different choice. By witnessing the life he makes for himself at the hotel, the reader learns a great deal about Russia...and about humanity.

I'm intentionally taking my time with this one. I've grown very fond of the main character, Count Alexander Rostov, and the cast of characters he interacts with in his daily life at the hotel. I'm also fascinated with all the references made to historical events. I've been researching quite a bit. In other words, I'm not trying to rush through such a beautifully written historical fiction book. This one takes a little more effort, but I feel it's worth it.

Good for the brain. Good for the soul.

For me, it doesn't get any better than that.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Catching Up with Books

Books, Books, Books...

I've been reading a variety of books lately, so I thought I'd break them down into age groups. If you're not interested in middle school novels, skip to high school (because that is also an excellent adult read) and adult fiction areas below.

Middle School

First, I'd like to recommend Peg Kehret as a writer. I'm known to preach the merits of her books because they do well with the middle school crowd. Kehret is good at pulling readers into the action and shocking them pretty early on. I haven't read some of hers in awhile, so I decided to read Stolen Children. I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I was able to convince some other students to read it by simply reading the first two lines:

"Amy's babysitting course taught her basic first aid, bedtime tips, and how to change a diaper, but it did not cover what to do if two thugs with a gun showed up. She had to figure that out herself."

And if you think that's the only shocking thing in the book, it's obvious you've never read Peg Kehret. This writer knows how to hook a reader! This isn't a long novel, 165 pages with fairly large print, but it IS a good book. I'd recommend it for sixth graders and for reluctant seventh and eighth grade readers.


High School

Jennifer Donnelly is another great author I love. I admit, though, she broke my heart when she agreed to write a series of books for Disney,...just so they could sell more products. Perhaps, that's why I decided to go back in time to one of her older novels I'd never read.

I chose to read A Gathering Light (titled A Northern Light in the U.S.) because it was from a time and place I knew nothing about. The setting is the early 1900's in the Adirondack Mountains. The story is a historical fiction at its finest and revolves around the real murder of a young lady staying at a hotel on holiday. Donnelly writes the story from the perspective of a mountain girl, Mattie, who works as a servant in the hotel. Mattie had served the young woman the night before her murder, when the woman gave Mattie some letters to burn. Once the hotel guest is found dead the next morning, Mattie doesn't know what she should do with the letters: Keep her promise and burn them? Read them and look for clues? Turn them over to the constable?

This book is definitely a page turner that begins with the gruesome scene of the dead girl and goes back in time as Mattie tells the reader what took place before. The book does an excellent job of portraying life for the people of that area during that time. Mattie is a likable character, wise beyond her years, and with more responsibilities than a young girl should have to be burdened with. There are many layers to this story, and all of them are intriguing.

Adult Fiction

I found a fascinating book titled Serena, by Ron Rash, at our library's book sale. I was attracted to the novel because the setting was the 1930s in North Carolina. I was born and raised in North Carolina, but I know nothing of what life was like there in the 1930s. I found out, after I read the book, Serena is also a movie (which I haven't seen yet).

There are many things I like about this novel, but I'd have to say I most enjoyed hating the villain. There's nothing quite like the pleasure of finding a character you can completely loathe. Too often, villains are given an excuse for being evil. Not this time.

The novel centers around a Boston business man, George Pemberton, who owns a logging company in the NC Mountains. Labor is cheap, conditions are harsh, and he's a jerk. George meets his match in his new bride, Serena, and he brings her back to the NC Mountains to help him run his business. The two share quite a passion, both physically and in a type of bloodlust for violence and hunting. It's almost like she's the female version of her husband, a perfect reflection of his own ego. And isn't that every man's dream? Perhaps.

I didn't like that Rash's book was compared, in reviews, to Steinbeck. I almost didn't read it because of that. I'm not a big fan of Steinbeck, though some of his novels are okay. If I had to compare this type of novel to anyone, it would be Daphne du Maurier. It is definitely, what I would consider, a gothic tale of intrigue and suspense.

My advice on this one? Don't read any spoilers, don't watch the movie,...just...read it. If you like good twists and evil villains and violence of varying degrees, this book fits the bill. I soaked it up in a day. It's very rare I get an entire day to read a book, but this one insisted on it.

Next, in my TBR stack was a debut novel...

The Hideaway by Lauren K. Denton was an easy, uncomplicated novel with a host of loveable characters. Sara lives in New Orleans, away from her eccentric grandmother, Mags. When Mags dies unexpectedly one day, Sara finds that she's inherited her grandmother's old, rundown bed-and-breakfast. Sara has been left specific instructions on what to do with the property before she decides to sell it or not. Sara finds many things at the old bed-and-breakfast, but she never expected to find...that she never actually knew her own grandmother.

This is a delightful read, but...it pretty much reads like a Lifetime Movie Network movie. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, I'm just letting you know it fits in that category for me. I'm glad I read it, I always like to give debut novels a shot, but it's not my type of genre. It fits in more with readers who enjoy Nora Roberts.


Currently reading...

I'm enjoying a lovely autumn day today, as I read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I started the novel a couple of days ago. I'll let you know my review on it next week.

Happy Autumn!


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Chasing Autumn

I didn't blog on Sunday, and I won't be blogging this Sunday. I have perfectly wonderful reasons why. You see, I allowed my job (which I love) to take over my life. It's been a very busy season since the first of August. Time has gone by in a blur. And, as much as I enjoy teaching children, I deserve my own personal time to pursue my own pleasures.

I decided to take back my personal time in two ways:

First, I committed myself to reading more books for pleasure during the school year,...and to read something more than middle school books. So, a couple of weekends ago, I spent an entire weekend reading. (That's a big deal for me during the school year.) And, yes, I'll eventually blog about those books. But not now.

The second way I decided to take back my personal time was to travel more. My husband has said, on more than one occasion, I have to be about 100 miles away from my school to begin turning my brain off from my job. I wish I could say that isn't true. It may be a slight exaggeration, but...there is a lot of truth to what he says. I live close to my school, and there is always something that needs to be done. It's just too tempting to work on work all the time and chase the dream that someday my "to do" list might actually get done.

In light of my new commitment to myself, I've been traveling more. This past weekend, I spent a glorious weekend in San Francisco with my husband. We had a wonderful time, and the weather was perfect! We went to the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I didn't talk about my job, and I didn't think about my job...all weekend.

Now, thanks to a couple of restful weekends, I'm having a great week at work this week! Am I still busy? Yes. Am I stressed about it? No. In fact, I'm already packing my bag to take another trip this weekend, and I'm taking Friday off from work to go. I've also planned a few other small weekend excursions throughout the rest of the school year to treat myself for working as hard as I work all week.

I've finally decided that in this season of my life, I'm no longer chasing a dream of completing an endless 'to do' list at work.

And in this moment in time, the only thing I'm chasing is autumn.



Sunday, October 8, 2017

Monsters

I read a beautiful book about monsters.

Before I read it, I knew nothing about it except that I had seen a couple of middle school students reading it, and I knew my youngest daughter (she's 23 years old) didn't like it. She was visiting and saw I'd purchased it. She disliked it so much that she said I could also have her copy if I wanted it. (And I do want it, Cynthia!)

Hmmm, now,...I was intrigued.

I read the book A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, in one day and absorbed every part of it. I marked beautiful, meaningful passages that spoke to my heart. I also read it through two lenses. One lens was my own, having a deeper understanding and connection to the things in the story, and the other lens was that of a sixth grade student. Because of my daughter's comment, I wanted to make sure this was something I thought a sixth grader could handle. (And it is. It most definitely is.)

While the story is steeped in fantasy, it is a very true story about human emotions, difficult struggles, and how humans handle how we feel. In the case of this story, it's a boy named Conor dealing with the fact his mother is fighting cancer and his father deserted them long before that. I'm not giving anything away by saying that, the reader knows it within the first few pages, but the book isn't about cancer. It's about how a boy handles the emotions that go along with the changes in his life.

When a child knows at a young age he has no right to be a normal kid because he already realizes there are much bigger issues than his own, it changes his childhood. He grows up very quickly, whether he wants to or not. It is not easy waters to navigate. Some children handle it well, others do not. Like so many children, Conor finds himself forced to be a little adult. He's doing the things his dad would do and trying to help take care of his mom. Everyone is concerned how Conor is handling everything, but no one knows the right things to say. And, then?

A monster calls.

Through a series of dreams/nightmares the monster tries to help Conor face his greatest fear. When the monster is unsuccessful, at first, he decides to approach Conor by telling the boy three stories over several nights. And the monster tells Conor that when the third story is told, Conor must tell the monster his own story. Conor must be the author of the fourth story and tell his truth.

"Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt."

This is as close to a perfect story as I've ever experienced. And, yes, it is perfect for young people...and for grown-ups.


In a young adult fiction world, where there are few contemporary books with any substance to them, this book is a rare treat. The story is woven in just the right way. It's the kind of book C.S. Lewis described as a book that is worthy of childhood and adulthood - which is the only kind of book that is truly a good children's book. Period.

Read it. You won't regret it.

As for my daughter's review? I guess I could sum it up as a review I saw on Goodreads when I was finished: "I hated this book. It's an important book." And the reviewer gave it five stars.

You see, even grown-ups struggle with expressing emotions or reading stories that cause them to feel things they'd rather avoid.

Just like Conor.

Monday, October 2, 2017

One Book Leads to Another

I've been in a bit of a reading funk lately. I'm reading, but I haven't found anything amazing in a good while. However, I am in the habit of allowing one book to lead me to another,...especially when I'm at a loss about which book on my TBR I want to read next.

I decided to read The Little French Bistro, by Nina George, last weekend. I really loved her novel The Little Paris Bookshop, and I hoped to find some of that same magic in her most recent novel. The Little French Bistro isn't as good as it predecessor, but I did enjoy it. It was a good, easy weekend read that started off my week pleasantly enough.

I can sum up the book, without giving anything away: an older woman, Marianne, realizes her entire marriage has been a sham and just walks away from her life while on a vacation trip with her husband. She would rather kill herself, jumping off the wall into the Seine, than stay in her life for one more breath.

Marianne fails in her attempt to commit suicide, but embarks on a journey that will help her find herself. Yes, I know, it's a bit cliché. And, yes, it's a bit predictable. But, I will admit, I enjoyed the characters. It was fun to visit with them for awhile. The book also made me curious about Brittany and people who are Bretons. And, of course, I always enjoy the European take on things.

I also found myself interested in a book Marianne refers to in the novel. She mentioned a book about a Parisian intellect and a Breton fisherman that had a long-term love affair. She mentions it because she's on the same beach mentioned in that novel. From the sound of it, the book was fairly well-known. I decided to look it up and found it is a book and a movie. Who knew? So, I ordered a copy of the book Salt On Our Skin by Benoite Groult.

First, let me say, I'm glad I read Groult's novel. I certainly learned a few things, insights into my own way of thinking, but I can't say I especially liked it at first. Perhaps, it's because I didn't like the main character and narrator of the story, George (a woman). I suspect she didn't like herself too much either. I respected her for the truths she tells, and how boldly - at times - she tells it,...but you'd expect a woman to gain wisdom as she ages. Or, at least, you'd hope she would. I found George to be very self-centered and shallow...and too intellectual for her own good.

Gavin (her lover), on the other hand, I found very likeable...in a bumbling, honest-guy kind of way. Any sympathy I had, I gave to him. Poor bloke. The Parisian intellect wants to play head games, while the Breton fisherman just wants to earn an honest day's pay and have someone to love him for who he is. It sounds like it's doomed from the start, doesn't it? I must say, it is refreshing to have the woman be the 'bad' one in a relationship instead of the man. 

Then, I began to think about why the book was written in the way it was written. The narrator had an honest voice. Too honest, I think, sometimes...

I decided to look up the author later...and found her life was very similar to the narrator's. Very similar. I believe that was intentional. In fact, after researching about Groult's life, I understood why the picture she painted in the novel shows the woman as almost self-loathing. To understand the author is to understand George, who is very critical of the choices she's made, but lays no blame at the feet of the Breton lover she clings to passionately. She even tries to forgive herself for the bad decisions she made based on what she understood of life at that time. Looking back, it's easy to see what you should've done, or could've done. After all, hindsight is 20/20, right?

I can already tell this is one of those novels that will stay with me for awhile. And I have a feeling the more time that passes, the more fondly I will think of it. Much like an old lover.