Book – Straun, Ontario is home to twenty-one year old Megan Cartwright and her family. Megan has been the organizer of her household and primary caretaker of her family since she was a young girl. Her father is a banker and stays in his study when he’s home and her mother is caught up with the arrival of the newest baby. When Megan decides that it’s time she goes out on her own and leaves for England, the family is left without their safety net. Her older brother, Tom, has been driving the town snow plow and living at home since a tragedy involving his best friend. Her mother is increasingly vague and neglectful. The younger boys are fending for themselves. Her father refuses to acknowledge his family’s decline. Megan is unaware of the family’s turmoil as she struggles to find her own place in the world. When things finally come to a head, everyone must own up to their frailties and make difficult choices. I love the way Lawson captures family dynamics and small-town life. Her characters are flawed, but relatable in their struggles. Straun is also the setting for Lawson’s novel Crow Lake and some of the characters make a reappearance in Road Ends.
Book – Jess is a single mother with a lot on her plate. Her adopted stepson is regularly beaten up by neighborhood thugs, who taunt him for wearing make-up and being a loner. Her young daughter, Tanzie, is a mathematical genius who has an opportunity to go to a special prep school that Jess cannot afford. Jess is estranged from her dead-beat husband, Marty, who lives with his mother and hasn’t supported the children financially or emotionally for two years. To make ends meet, Jess waitresses and cleans houses. One of her clients is the software billionaire, Ed. Although Jess doesn’t know it, Ed is being investigated for insider trading. Their paths cross unexpectedly as Jess sets out on a trip to secure scholarship money for Tanzie. It’s a fun and entertaining adventure as four eccentric and lonely people discover their strengths, vulnerabilities and their “tribes.” Moyes has written several other novels, including Me Before You.
Movie – This animated feature film was the highest-grossing Japanese film of its time. The director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), sometimes described as the Japanese Walt Disney, is a pioneer of anime. In this epic adventure set in pre-industrial Japan a young prince incurs a life-threatening curse and sets off to find a cure. He becomes a central figure in a war between man and nature when a mining clan battles a variety of forest gods led by Princess Mononoke, a young woman raised by wolves. This film portrays mythology and surreal characters that are uniquely Japanese.
The viewer definitely picks up on the anxiety of the Japanese about the diminishing of their natural environment. Although there is beautifully painted animation, it also contains some violence and it is not a story for young children. I appreciate that the characters and the social issues addressed in the film are complex and thoughtfully presented. A budding romance develops between the Prince and Princess Mononoke, but they often place duty above their personal relationship. This English version of the film was adapted by Neil Gaiman (Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane) and it is voiced by actors that include Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jada Pinkett Smith.
Movie – Listen Up is the documentary that provides an intimate look at the life of multifaceted music icon Quincy Jones, who shaped four generations of American sound. In an unusual, kaleidoscopic way, this movie takes you on a journey from Quincy’s early life of poverty on Chicago’s south side, to his move to an all-white environment in Seattle, and his life on-the-road as a trumpeter with Lionel Hampton. It follows him as he leads his own big band, and moves into production, arranging and film composing. Filmmaker Ellen Wiesbrod gets very close to Quincy, capturing many moods and remembrances. There are many comments from the great stars that he worked with, i.e. Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Oprah Winfrey, Dizzy Gillespie, Steven Spielberg, Miles Davis, and many others including Jones’ family. Listen Up is a fascinating summation of his career in jazz, pop, R&B, hip-hop and other styles, and his film composing (In the Heat of the Night, Roots, In Cold Blood, The Color Purple and many more). He was the 1st black to write movie scores and the 1st black VP of A&R for a major record label. He produced Off the Wall and Thriller, the two albums that launched Michael Jackson into the pop stratosphere, and was the musical mastermind behind We Are the World. Only Sir Georg Solti has more Grammy Awards than Quincy Jones, who has 27. Listen Up is like a fine jazz number, layered and intricate with rhythm, flow and nuance.
Book – Stony Mayhall isn’t like other kids. His skin is cold and grey. He doesn’t hurt when he’s injured. Oh, and he’s been dead since he was born. On a cold night not long after the zombie uprising. Wanda Mayhall found the body of a young mother by the side of the road, but the baby in her arms reached out when Wanda came close, so she brought it home and raised it as her own. No one knows why Stony grew up, even though he was a zombie, but they know they have to keep him a secret.
Unlike most zombie stories, Raising Stony Mayhall isn’t really a horror novel: it’s a story about family, and finding out who you are. Stony grows up in isolation, but his discovery that there are other living dead folks walking around brings his life into a new perspective. The point isn’t to scare you but to make you think. Daryl Gregory calls the genre he writes in “anti-horror,” a story that starts out seeming like horror but which turns into something much more positive. Even if you’re sick to death of zombie stories, give this one a try: it’s not at all what you’ve become used to.
Book – The Apple Orchard by Susan Wiggs is a highly entertaining light read great to take along to the beach or enjoy while traveling. Tess is an expert at antiques and returning lost treasures to their rightful owners. She is career driven, has a fast-paced life in San Francisco, and is on the verge of being promoted. She has no real family ties; her mother travels extensively and she never knew her father. Tess’ life is about to dramatically change when a handsome banker named Dominic shows up and gives her the news that she has a grandfather, who is hospitalized, and a half-sister, Isabel. Tess also finds out that if her grandfather does not pull through, she and Isabel are heirs to a vast apple orchard in Sonoma Valley. Tess joins her new found family on the estate, learns about her roots and she and Isabel uncover some family secrets, including family involvement in the Danish resistance against the Nazis. While the sisters acquaint themselves with each other Isabel cooks and bakes – her passion. Some recipes are included. Highly recommended for fans of women’s fiction, this book is just the right combination of family, romance, secrets and a little mystery. This is the first book in the Bella Vista Chronicles series. I look forward to reading the second – The Beekeeper’s Ball.
Book – The subtitle on this book is “Just because the Internet told you, how do you know it’s true?” As anyone who’s ever spent much time on the Internet knows, a lot of what’s out there isn’t true at all, whether it’s from someone making a joke, someone who isn’t as informed as they thought they were, or from someone who’s actively trying to mislead you. Seife gives an overview of all these kinds of Internet-enabled misinformation as well as tips on how to spot tricks and scams.
While Seife’s writing style is entertaining, full of jokes and sarcasm, his hyperbole can be misleading itself. He mentions the immanent death of libraries at least twice, even though libraries are actually seeing more use now than they have in the past. That kind of thing makes me skeptical of the rest of the information he gives – just like he recommends that you be skeptical of a website when some of its information is wrong. Seife has a bias against online information in general, and that comes through loud and clear. Still, his advice for evaluating the things you find online is good, so readers can get practice by applying the same kind of critical reading skills to Seife’s own book before the venture onto the Web.
Graphic Novel- Fun Home is a graphic novel memoir depicting the childhood of author, Alison Bechdel, and her relationship with her father, Bruce. Bruce is obsessed with restoring their Victorian home, is a third generation funeral director, a high school English teacher, and a closeted homosexual. He has a wife, two other children, and several male lovers. This novel takes the reader on a journey through the last few years of his life, up until he dies because of a freak accident. Or was it suicide?
Bechdel inserts many literary references into her narrative, which, in my opinion, diminishes the story and the characters. I think the story had more potential than what was transcribed, and I would have liked it more if the writing wasn’t so erudite. I attempted her second graphic novel memoir, Are you my Mother?, but found it written in the same style, and quickly abandoned it. If you are intrigued by scholarly and intellectual writing, this novel is for you.
Music – This is a truly remarkable album featuring the voice of Helen Forrest, who is known as the best of the big band singers from the 30’s and 40’s (the WWII generation). At the peak of her career, she was the most popular female singer in the United States. This album showcases her work with three famous bandleaders: Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Harry James. She was the classiest of all the big band singers, with impeccable phrasing and unparalleled range and breath control, which made it easy to be heard over a 17-piece orchestra. Helen’s understated vocal style was sensual, feminine, controlled and simple; it suggested poetic images and brokenhearted reverie. Helen was often ill as a child and had to overcome a hearing loss in one of her ears. She was raised by her mother and a stepfather (who she hated) mainly in a brothel in Brooklyn. She dropped out of high school and started her rise to fame when Artie Shaw hired her in 1938. Subsequently, she became a national favorite, and in 1942 and 1943 she was voted the best female vocalist in the U.S. in the Down Beat poll. In the course of her career, she recorded more than 500 songs! I like all of the old songs, but especially “I’ve Heard That Song Before,” “Skylark,” and “Comes Love.” Of course, the music is enhanced by the fabulous clarinet playing of both Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, as well as Harry James’ flawless trumpet.
Book - On the 28th of June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, an event which is now commonly regarded as the spark that kicked off World War I. In this book, Lebow considers what might have happened if the assassin had missed. The Archduke, he argues, was an important moderate voice in European politics, and if he had lived, war may have been avoided. But what would the world look like if one of the deadliest conflicts of the twentieth century had never happened?
Lebow offers two alternatives: a particularly good world, in which the absence of war creates an open, moderate, and prosperous global community; and a particularly bad one, in which the tensions which contributed to the Great War continue without ever breaking into outright war, creating an atmosphere of oppression and paranoia. He admits that either set of events is as plausible as the other, and we’ll never be able to test his guesses, but he also argues that thinking about how things could have been different helps us to understand why things happened the way they did.
Since the book focuses so much on individual people, it’s easy to get lost in a long list of names and titles, particularly since half of the book is describing things that these people never actually did. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the war, but for someone already a little familiar with the events, this is an interesting new angle.