Thursday, January 28, 2016

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire is a pretty intense dive into Susannah Cahalan's personal trip to hell and back.  Sometimes it was hard to believe what I was reading was non-fiction and not just a really good medical thriller.  

Susannah was a healthy 24 year old, living in New York City in a tiny apartment, dating a great guy, and working as a journalist at the New York Post.  It was Spring, 2009 when Susannah started to feel a bit odd.  A bad headache, difficulty concentrating at work, and the concern of parents and friends sent her to doctors.  Diagnoses ranging from mono, to "being too stressed to live on her own", to yes, even schizophrenia kept coming.  All blood tests, MRI's, and other tests all kept coming back normal.  And Susannah's health kept deteriorating...

Needless to say, this book is about Susannah's journey into a mysterious illness that had only been discovered in 2007, two years before she somehow fell victim to it. The clock was ticking--would Susannah's doctors find a cure before it was too late?  

This all takes place over a month, and it's pretty intense. In order to write about her experience, Susannah spent time reading her father's journal, going over doctor reports and notes, and piecing together her lost month, when everyone thought she was going mad.  She doesn't remember much of it at all, just a few flashes of moments that continue to haunt her today.  This is a book about parents who did not give up on their child, and insisted on finding the cause of her illness.  It is the story of a woman who fights her way back from literally the brink of death.  It is about the journey after the illness, back to the real Susannah.  Could the real Susannah be found? 

I'm leaving out a lot on this review, because I want you to read this book.  It's a thriller, a medical mystery, and most importantly, a story of overcoming the odds, and simply being lucky and in the right place in the right time.

There are plenty of tv interviews and clips of Susannah on YouTube that you can check out if you'd like to hear her story.  

Available in paperback, audio, and e-book.

Rating:  7/10 for medical thriller that is all the more chilling because it is real.  

Saturday, January 23, 2016

I Listened to an Audiobook: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

I have avoided audio books for 20 years.  I tried one once, listening while I worked around the house.  It drove me nuts.  I half-listened, made mental lists in my head, and the narrator's voice annoyed me after so many hours. Having a commute that was literally 3 short right turns and 5 minutes meant I never was tempted to listen in my car.  It also helped that none of my vehicles had a tape or CD player.  

Now my commute is an hour each way, four days a week.  I have a CD player in my car.  I've got nothing to stare at but miles of road, corn and soybean fields.  So I thought I would give an audio book a try.  I shied away from my beloved historical fiction, and instead tried something that was peculiar, off-beat, and humorous.  

Welcome to Night Vale  by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor is a very popular podcast.  I listened to a few of the podcasts on my commute and enjoyed the completely oddball-ness of it.  Night Vale is a strange town where secret police listen in on everything, creatures roam day and night, and time has a peculiar way of morphing.  There is a forbidden dog park, a woman named Josie who has angels following her around (they are all named Erica), and a radio announcer who makes sure everyone knows just what is going on in Night Vale. You do not have to listen to the podcast to enjoy this book.  As a matter of fact, you don't even have to start with episode one of the podcast to get into the swing of things.  Just jump in and go.  All the podcasts are free, and there are over 70 of them.  Enough to keep you amused for quiet some time.  

The audio book is narrated by Cecil Baldwin, who is the narrator of the podcast (and the radio announcer).  In the novel, Jackie is the owner of the pawnshop in town.  She's 19, and has been 19 for as long as she can remember.  Everything in the pawnshop costs $11, and you die for just a short time when you bring something in to pawn and agree on the price.  One day, a man in a tan jacket, with a deerskin briefcase, comes into the pawnshop.  He gives Jackie a piece of paper that says King City on it and flees, off into the desert.  

Diane works at a boring job, and is a single mom to her son Josh.  Josh is a shapeshifter, and at 15 is restless to know who his father is, and why he's not around.  Diane works with Evan, but notices Evan hasn't been at work for a while.  A mysterious phone call from Evan starts her off on a journey of complete strangeness.  She's the only person at work who remembers Evan even working there.  Is she crazy?  Or is it just the usual in Night Vale?

Jackie and Diane are on the trail of the man in the tan jacket, as well as the blonde man who keeps popping up all over town.  Is the blond man Troy, Josh's father?  Why does he keep avoiding Jackie and Diane?  What the heck is King City, and why can't Jackie get rid of the piece of paper that's permanently stuck to her hand?  How is it all connected?  And what do pink flamingos have to do with any of it?  Oh, and the library is not to be missed.  Hilarious!!

 I did enjoy listening to this audio book.  Having listened to some podcasts, I immediately enjoyed hearing Cecil Baldwin's voice again.  I will admit I had a few "tune out" moments, but I got on track again fairly quickly.  This novel is full of just plain silly stuff.  I chuckled quite a few times.  I envy the writing talent behind this crazy town of Night Vale.  Nothing is off limits, especially in your imagination. Makes you wonder if there is a Night Vale out there somewhere...

I would recommend listening to the audio of this book, because Cecil's voice is what makes this novel come alive.  If you've listened to the podcasts, you know what I'm talking about.  I don't think I would have enjoyed reading the novel as much as I liked listening to it on my commute.  

So...am I sold on audio books?  Sorta.  I think for me, audio books will work if I listen to non-fiction or humorous fiction.  There are just some books that I prefer to hold in my hand and read instead of listen to someone tell me the story.  

Next audio will be Tina Fey.  I hope to incorporate audio books and maybe even some podcasts into my reviews every month.  Driving 400 miles a week will give me plenty of opportunity to listen!

Rating:  7/10 for my first audio book.  I enjoy the world of Night Vale--a perfect blend of paranormal, humor, and downright silliness backed by clever writing and the perfect voice of Cecil Baldwin.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio book. 


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

 I've read and enjoyed a few of Bill Bryson's travel adventures, and even recently watched the movie A Walk in the Woods (the book was much better).  So when I had a chance to read an advanced copy of his latest travel adventures, I jumped at the chance.  

Bill Bryson is originally an Iowa boy, born in Des Moines and ending up in England in his early 20's, falling in love, marrying, and settling in his new home.  He's been back to the United States, even lived in New Hampshire for a number of years, but now he's settled back in England, a curmudgeon that at once makes you laugh and ponder how the world changes as we age--or is it the same, and we just see it differently in our mature years? 

The Road to Little Dribbling is a sequel of sorts to his very popular book Notes from a Small Island, written 20 years ago.  He decided, after a bit of prodding, that he needed to revisit some of the places he first visited as a relative newbie living in England.  Now Bill is in his 60's, and that really does color his experiences as he wanders through England from top to bottom.  Visiting Cornwall, Wales, Dover, and many other places both big and small, Bill reminisces over how England has changed and stayed the same in some places; even improved greatly from when he last visited.  He rails against the increasing stupidity of people (don't we all, really?), their horrible grammar, and how England is in danger of losing what makes England such a wonderful place: the vast swaths of forests, parks, and stunning beauty that makes England like no other place in the world. 

Bill is clearly a man in love with his adopted homeland (and he recently became a dual citizen as well).  He is funny, biting, and sometimes just plain crabby and grumpy.  He does make the point that England has so many incredible National Heritage Sites, archeological sites, cathedrals, and oodles of historical "stuff" that it is easy for people to grow complacent, and figure all will always be there.  But, we are reminded that we are merely stewards, and we must take care of our treasures.  I thoroughly enjoyed Bill's snarkiness, bits of forgotten historical tidbits, and mostly his passion and love for Britain, warts and all.  We all sometimes need a reminder of why we love the places we call home, with all the quirkiness and quiet beauty that surrounds us that we often times forget to see.  

You don't need to read Notes from a Small Island to enjoy the "sequel". I didn't and don't feel I missed anything important.  Those who love Bill Bryson won't be disappointed, and those who don't know Bill Bryson should give his travel adventures a try.  

Rating:  7/10 for an enjoyable tromp through England with a man who enjoys a pint, appreciates the quirks of his country, and has just the right touch of humor and history to make his books a treat to read. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Blast from the Past: Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher

I have a friend who has been a fan of Rosamunde Pilcher for years, and of course I never read her until this past month.  It speaks to the popularity of her books  that I checked out the hardcover of Winter Solstice from my local library:  yellow pages, repaired spine, and ragged cover a testament to just how many times people have read this particular edition.  And I wasn't disappointed.  

Elfrida Phipps is a retired actress who lives in a quiet village (Dibton) in England with her dog Horace.  A small cottage, good friends Oscar and Gloria, and a simple life suit her just fine.  An extended visit to her cousin in Cornwall is a welcome change of scenery and a way to connect to family she hasn't seen in awhile.  Coming back to Dibton she finds out a terribly sad event has taken place, and rushes to Oscar's side to provide companionship and comfort.  Oscar asks Elfrida if she will travel to Scotland with him to get away from Dibton and stay at a home he owns with a distant cousin.  She readily agrees, and off they go to Scotland in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  

Corrydale cottage in Scotland is a welcome respite from painful memories for Oscar.  Hoping for a quiet and uneventful Christmas, Elfrida and Oscar find themselves suddenly welcoming Elfrida's relative Carrie, as well as Carrie's young niece Lucy for the holidays.  What could potentially be a painful time for Oscar is actually a balm to his soul, and soon the small group are bonding over tea and cozy chats.  A knock at the door one day welcomes another lost soul into their midst, and life takes a sudden curve that will surprise them all.  

If you want a cozy, truly British read, this is the one for you. It is pure comfort, blissful reading, and a treat to read.  It took me a bit before the story kicked in, so be patient.  It also could be my fault for taking weeks to read this novel.  I have no excuse except it was Christmas and lots of stuff was going on in my life. I plan on reading more Rosamunde Pilcher in the future.  She retired from writing years ago, but luckily left a good amount of books for people to enjoy.  I read a review on Goodreads that calls this genre the "Aga-Saga" and I had to laugh while I nodded my head in agreement.  There's something particularly comforting in a novel that mentions an Aga gently warming the kitchen, a pot of tea or a sip of sherry, and a cottage.  Toss in a lovely English garden and I'm sold.  

Rating:  7/10
Available in paperback, e-book, and audio. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Yes, I Read a Romance: Between a Vamp and a Hard Place by Jessica Sims

When I was much younger, I read a lot of romances.  This was before vampires, combat warriors, and every paranormal creature around filled the shelves of romance sections in stores and libraries.  My romance reads consisted of cowboys, corporate millionaires, titled gentlemen, and Scottish hotties.  

I received a request to read and review this novel from Simon and Schuster and I thought, why not?  I could do with a fun, otherworldly romance.  I finished it in a few days (a nap and housework kept me from finishing it in one day), and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.  

I don't read many romances nowadays, and I don't have an answer as to why. There are romances for every taste, and I certainly could hand-sell them to customers without much effort.  Ask a few questions, know a few authors, and you can match people with the right romance.  Between a Vamp and a Hard Place is definitely for those who like contemporary, funny, hot romances with a vampire tossed in to make it that much better.  I've talked about my pet peeve of a bad cover, and I have to say this one shows Rand with a clean cut look.  Rand is a 600 year old vampire, and his hair is repeatedly described in the novel as "shaggy".  Let it be shaggy on the cover!!

Anyway.  To the story.  Lindsey and her friend Gemma live in Nebraska and are struggling to build an antique business.  They are super close friends who grew up together in a foster home and only have each other.  Gemma takes a chance and spends all their savings on an opportunity to clear out an old apartment in Venice.  They get first dibs on all the potential antiques.  It could be a disaster, or a money-maker.  They travel to Venice, and begin working through the apartment.  It's a mess.  Filled with boxes and boxes of stuff.  Lindsey spots a picture above a piece of furniture, tries to grab it, and ends up losing it behind the furniture.  Her fumbling around leads to the discovery of a hidden passage behind the wall.  Lindsey and Gemma follow the stairs down a damp passageway, and into a room that is filled with a whole lot of antiques that could potentially save their business.  

And guess what else?  Yep.  A coffin.  Lindsey creeps down at night to see the coffin, and bravely pries open the lid, thinking for sure it's either empty or full of more antiques.  What she finds is Sir Rand FitzWulf.  And of course he's a hottie.  Rand has no idea he's been sleeping for hundreds of years, and has no idea why anyone would stake him. Yes, he was staked.  It doesn't kill a vampire, but puts them into a sleep from which they can't awaken.  Lop off their head, and they're dust.  Remove the stake, and they wake up.  

Lindsey is pretty calm about all of this.  Gemma thinks it's pretty cool.  Rand only knows that he's got the hots for Lindsey, and he must find whomever tried to end his life centuries before.  The Dragon is Rand's mysterious leader, and one evil dude.  Can Rand find him and end it all before The Dragon ends Rand?  

This was a fun, fun, book.  Gemma swears like a sailor, and Lindsey alternates between tough girl and a woman with a serious case of lust.  I've read a few reviews that say Rand is so controlling and manipulative.  Seriously people.  He's a 600 year old vampire, with vampiric powers, and was a warlord living during the crusades. Heck yes he is controlling.  You can't make a 600 year old man act like a modern man.  I found him charming, myself.  There are quite a few sex scenes that use pretty specific language, so you are warned.  If you like your romances with lots of fade-outs, be forewarned this one has none of that.  I had to laugh out loud at the line uttered by Lindsey: "He's a shower, not a grower."  First time I've ever read that in a romance. 

So yes, sometime this year, grab a romance and read it.  Pure utter fun.  I liked the story line, the characters, and the conclusion.  The cover, however, could use a bit of tweaking.  

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for the ARC.  

Rating:  7/10 for a romance full of hotness, a tough yet vulnerable hero, and a feisty heroine.  The cover art, however, doesn't fit the characters.  But don't let that stop you from enjoying the story.

Available in paperback and e-book.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

I'm starting off 2016 with a novel that combines so many elements: ghosts, mothers, cults, foster kids, family, the starry sky.  You can't imagine that all of those elements can possibly come together into a story, but they do.  Wonderfully.  

Mr. Splitfoot  was a bit of a jolt for me in my reading habits, but it was a good jolt.  It begins in upstate New York, with Ruth and Nat, two teens who live together in a foster home.  This foster home, called The Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission is really a terrible place full of kids who aren't wanted by anyone. It's run by Father Arthur, a man who collects checks from the government and treats the foster kids horribly.  Full of fire and brimstone, he's completely dysfunctional and takes all the kids who are "damaged" into his care.  The unwanteds.  Ruth's mother threw bleach on her face when she was little, leaving scars that resemble the night sky.  Nat talks to the dead.  Or is it all an act?

Ruth and Nat fall into a relationship with a traveling con artist, Mr. Bell.  He takes them around to give readings to people who want contact with their dead relatives.  It's a way for Ruth and Nat to make money and get away from the foster home, where they will be kicked out as soon as they turn 18.  

An alternating story involves Ruth's niece, Cora.  Set in current day, Cora is a young woman who finds herself pregnant and living with Ruth's sister (and Cora's mother), El.  El and Ruth had both lived at Love of Christ! until El was taken away and left on the side of the road by Father Arthur on her 18th birthday.  Ruth waited for her sister to come back to get her, but she never did.  Cora wakes one night to find her Aunt Ruth standing in her bedroom.  Ruth takes Cora on a walking tour of New York state.  Where are they going?  Why doesn't Ruth talk? How does it connect to Ruth and Nat's past?  

There are so many elements to this novel.  It is quirky, sad, funny, mystical, magical, and sometimes just bizarre.  But at the core, it reflects on motherhood in all of its varied ways, family, love, and how we all affect one another through our actions, words, and emotions.  Mr. Splitfoot is certainly a book club worthy read, and was a great way to kick off my 2016 reading list.  

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing a  review copy, and for being so enthusiastic about this novel.  

Rating:  8/10 for a very different, yet moving novel that combines what we want with what we've got (and how to work with it), and the absolute powerful pull of love in all its mysterious ways.