Truly Devious, by Maureen Johnson (audio)

Eighty years ago, there was a kidnapping and murder at the Ellingham Academy, a special school for individual learning in Vermont. Stevie Bell, a new student at Ellingham, is determined to solve the cold case. Then a new mystery arises, with a warning: the supposed former culprit, Truly Devious, is back.

This book was a lot of fun. It alternates between excerpts from the past and current-day events through Stevie’s eyes. Stevie is a fun character, a misfit in her family that suffers from severe anxiety and is obsessed with criminology. Her anxiety disorder and coping mechanisms are spot-on, as well as her awkward attempts to fit in with other students. The other characters and students at the academy are well-written, too, and I love seeing all the different kinds of people walking around the campus. (It was fun to casually meet a nonbinary character, even if they were only a side character!) The mysteries were also well-written, and the book had a great suspenseful pace that didn’t let me put it down. (Metaphorically, since it was on audio.) At the end, after getting to know more of the details, I had to go back and reread.

There were only two things I didn’t like about the book. I didn’t particularly enjoy the audio narration by Kate Rudd. Nothing against her – generally I’m just not a fan of the way YA books are read on audio. However, I think it’s a testament to the quality of the story itself that I not only kept listening, but listened twice. The second was about closure. This is the first in a series, and I’m okay with that – however, the book ended without any conclusion at all. I would have been fine had one of the two mysteries been solved and another new possibility opened up, that kind of thing. This felt like it just stopped in the middle of a story, though, and it’ll be quite some time before the next one releases. I’ve heard some people say that they wish the book had been a standalone, and I understand that sentiment because it really does feel like I’ve read 3/4ths of a book and was unable to read the rest. That’s frustrating. I’ll likely reread it when the next book comes out and head straight into that one.

Posted in 2018, Prose, Young Adult | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Sunday Coffee – Valentine’s Week

It’s been another one of those crazy weeks. I’ve been quiet on the blog because I haven’t had much to talk about. Since reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (twice), I was unable to settle to anything else for almost two weeks. I culled half a dozen books off my list and I’m now down to an almost zero queue again. I guess that’s a plus and a minus about reading a really great book – you don’t bother with “just okay” books afterwards, but you also might end up with little to read…

The week has also been crazy busy because of the Olympics. I’ve been trying to record segments and watch them later so I can skip all the sports I don’t care about, but it’s still a lot of content to sort through. I do love the Olympics so I don’t mind, especially since my books have been lackluster! Plus it gives my brain something to do while I sort through personal and national sadness.

We finally replaced my van this week! We bought a used Nissan Rogue through Carvana and got to do that whole stick-a-coin-in-the-slot vending machine thing, ha! Our van was getting dangerous to drive, so I’m happy we were finally able to do something about that. The no-dealership thing was a real treat, too. We named our new car Gordon, because he looks and sounds cross.

The water heater also finally got replaced this week. Unfortunately, right after we did that, we noticed a spot on the kitchen ceiling that was pooling with water. The good news is that these two things didn’t end up being related (whew!). The bad news is that a part of our roof has pulled away from the rest of the house, causing the leak, and we now have a two-foot hole in the middle of our kitchen ceiling. We had our insurance company come out to look. Again, it’s good and bad news. They’ll pay for all the interior damage, including retexturing and repainting. They won’t, however, pay for a new roof, and we will definitely need a new roof in the very near future. So right after paying off all the debts last month, we’ll acquire a new giant one. Sigh. This is the third roof we’ve replaced in the last six years or so…

(Meet Jojo!)

Then there’s the kitty news. Laurence joined me for Tuesday’s Yoga With Cats session, and a cat adopted us. Yup. A 3-month old black kitten (that could be a twin to our Ash) went right up to me and wouldn’t leave my side. He curled up on my feet and later my jacket (so I could do the yoga!) and later nestled into my neck. I went back to see him on Wednesday and he curled right back up again. He growled at me when I tried to put him down, until I let him back onto my chest. The darling. I brought Jason to meet him on Thursday, and filled out the adoption paperwork. There was a hitch in the adoption, though, which I’ll write about in its own post later this week. For now, we’re fostering him.

Valentine’s Day was nice this week, too, though Jason and I didn’t go out until the next day due to various appointments etc. We went to the cat cafe so I could introduce him to the potential future new addition to our family. Ha! And I think that pretty much sums up the week because I really don’t want to get started ranting about politics and school shootings and how the issue is guns AND mental health care, not either/or, and you can see why I don’t want to get on the soapbox and rant here! I’m de-stressing at home, curling up with the foster-kitty, enjoying my morning coffee…

Posted in Personal | Tagged | 10 Comments

A Decade of Blogging

Technically, my ten-year-blogoversary was yesterday, but I didn’t get my act together in time to post this, so I’m a bit late. I don’t mind. I started my blog on Valentine’s Day, in the wee early hours of the morning while I suffered from jet lag after returning from my sister’s wedding in Palestine, but I wrote my first book review on the 15th, so today’s as good a day as any.

(I don’t know where this photo came from but it’s the only one I have of my original Blogspot header)

As many of you know, I’ve not always been the most consistent blogger. When I get knocked off course, I have a tendency to bounce around wildly like in a pinball machine until I settle. From mid-2011 until August 2014, I could not tell you how many times I switched blogs, quit blogging, blogged only privately, etc before reopening The Zen Leaf. Once I settled, I was fine. For a few years, though, I pretty much lost 95% of my readership, and honestly I’ve never been keen to be as big a blog again as I was before quitting. I’m perfectly happy with my little corner of the blogosphere!

(header photo after moving to WordPress in 2010)

That’s not to say that I haven’t gotten things out of blogging, both on a larger scale and my current smaller one. It’s been a wonderful decade, full of wonderful things and wonderful people, and I’m still doing what I love: writing my way through the world as a way to connect with like-minded people. Blogging has always been about friendship to me, and ten years on, this is still the most important thing!

So, in the last ten years, here are some fun facts and highlights!

Books read/reviewed: just over 1000!

Book Split: 82% fiction, 12% nonfiction, 6% other (poetry, drama, collections, etc)
Fiction Split: 56% speculative, 44% realistic
Media Split: 74% text, 20% audio, 6% visual
Audience Split: 56% adult, 33% young adult, 11% children’s

Longest book: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (~1500 pages)
Longest audiobook: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (60:31)
Longest title (excluding subtitles): The Sky Always Hears Me and the Hills Don’t Mind by Kirsten Cronn-Mills
Shortest title: (tie) M by Jon Muth; S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

I’ve still never read a book with a title that begins with an X, though I’ve read authors with last names beginning with every letter of the alphabet!

Things that did not work for me as a blogger

  • Reading challenges (whether host or participant) – These restricted my reading too much! The one exception is the annual RIP challenge!
  • Graphic novels – While I enjoy a very small percentage of these, I prefer my books in prose form.
  • Readalongs (whether host or participant) – I have a difficult time reading only a small segment at a time when I have the full book at my disposal.
  • Joint reviews – Fun idea, but the execution made me anxious!
  • Book tours and review books – While it’s sometimes fun to get a book ahead of time, I find that I cull too many books and this makes me feel guilty.
  • Ratings – I used to star-rate my books but found that ratings changed over time or were too static/single-minded for me.
  • Vlogging – I love watching others’ vlogs but prefer writing myself.

Things that did work for me as a blogger

  • Readathon! – I haven’t gotten to participate as much as I’d like, but I love this event so much!
  • New genres – Without blogging, I’d probably still be reading only classics and Harry Potter! Through book blogs, I’ve discovered so many of my favorite authors, genres, and books.
  • Audiobooks – I used to think I disliked audiobooks and boy how wrong I was!
  • GoodReads – This is like a reader’s paradise! Especially if you’re a list-fanatic like me.
  • Culling and abandoning books – I used to never give up a book once I started. Now I regularly abandon books at any point, from the first few paragraphs the last chapter. Life’s too short!
  • Wider blogging – In the beginning, my blog was all-books-all-the-time and I’ve discovered that I like a more free-range style.
  • Slower reading – In the early days of blogging, it was not unusual for me to read/review around 200 books per year, which burned me out really fast. I eventually settled into a good rate for me, around 60-80 books per year.
  • Multi-reads – This was something I did pre-blogging and had to rediscover. Sometimes it’s okay (and great!) to read a book twice (or twenty times) in a row.

Ten highlights from the last ten years of blogging

  1. The Return of the Native – I didn’t used to think I liked audiobooks until I stumbled across this one, read by Alan Rickman (mmm), and my entire book world changed.
  2. The Omnivore’s Dilemma – This is another book that changed my life, teaching me an entirely different way to view nutrition, especially fresh produce.
  3. The Night Circus – I’ve wanted to be a writer/author my entire life, until one year when I was so discouraged that I actually decided to quit. Nine months later, I read this book and changed my mind.
  4. NaNoWriMo – It was book bloggers that first introduced me to National Novel Writing Month, and book bloggers that encouraged me to participate.
  5. Brandon Sanderson – Sanderson wrote a NaNoWriMo pep talk one year that was so good I just had to read one of his books. He wrote in a genre I didn’t ever read – traditional fantasy – but his books helped me to fall in love with the genre and he’s now my favorite author ever.
  6. Library-Palooza – Speaking of Brandon Sanderson, I got to meet him and several other authors at this event in 2016!
  7. BEA and other book events – Book Expo America, Book Blogger Conference, Texas Book Festival, Library-Palooza…etc. I’ve been to a lot of these events over the years, often meeting up with other book bloggers for them.
  8. Community – I’ve met dozens and dozens of bloggers over the years. Since blogging has always been about friendship for me, these meet-ups are one of the best things about creating The Zen Leaf all those years ago.
  9. Support – I’ve gone through quite a number of rough times over the last decade, most notably the awful year I was in Boston. A select group of close blogger friends, as well as other friends and family, made up an online support group that kept me safe and sane through that year.
  10. The Death and Baby Death Book Hour – Most of my current readers never got to experience this little video series that my husband and I put together in the early days of blogging. Sadly, the series can never return as Death suffered his own death while we were living in Boston. Happily, I still have all the videos. And this picture:

Last but not least, I couldn’t celebrate this blogoversary without highlighting several of my favorite books from over the years. I couldn’t pick just ten favorites – gah! out of a thousand?? – so instead I’m going to list a few favorites from each year since The Zen Leaf began.

  • 2008: The Grapes of Wrath, We
  • 2009: Between Mom and Jo, Crossed Wires
  • 2010: Germinal, Little Children, Notes on a Scandal, Return of the Native
  • 2011: The Host, The Unit, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Night Circus
  • 2012: Howl’s Moving Castle, Mistborn, Shadow and Bone
  • 2013: City of Dark Magic
  • 2014: The Raven Boys (and series)
  • 2015: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
  • 2016: Words of Radiance, Bellweather Rhapsody
  • 2017: Oathbringer, A Face Like Glass, Strange the Dreamer
  • 2018: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

If you are still reading (this post, this blog…), thank you. To all my blogger friends out there, thank you. I can’t even imagine what my life would have been like these last ten years without all of this and all of you.

Posted in Book Talk | Tagged | 8 Comments

Sunday Coffee – Flu

It was bound to happen. The flu season is bad this year and Jason was the only one of us to get a flu shot yet. We were complacent and silly. And last Saturday, while Ambrose was at a friend’s house, he got a mild fever. On Sunday, it remained mild, and we still had no thoughts of flu. He didn’t have any nausea or other symptoms besides a sore throat. By Monday, though, he had a really high fever that we couldn’t lower. We made an appointment with his pediatrician, and they took a strep test and flu test. Strep was negative, flu was positive for Type A.

Unfortunately, we’d had people over on the weekend for the Super Bowl. We sent out warnings, and while most of the guest weren’t worried (a large family who had all already had the flu apparently), one guest did end up getting the flu by Wednesday. (Sorry, Stephanie!) Thankfully with the foreknowledge, she was able to get in to urgent care right away and start Tamiflu. We also got Tamiflu for our other two boys, who both started showing fevers by Wednesday. Ambrose felt fine and went back to school Thursday, and the other two boys (Tamiflu works so well) were back on Friday. As for me, I had a mild fever for a couple days and slept away a couple afternoons, but that was it. Hopefully (fingers crossed) I dodged a bullet here! Jason, having gotten the flu shot, was fine. Whew!

In better news, remember back when USPS lost Jason’s wedding ring? We went shopping for a new ring on our anniversary, but we didn’t find anything he liked. We moved online and found a craftsman who creates rings out of hardwood and various metals. Jason chose a design of wood and rose gold, and put in the order. They’re all made-to-order, each unique, and his ring arrived this week! It’s beautiful, fits him perfectly, and is much lighter to wear than a metal ring (which he loves). It’s absolutely perfect.

Lastly, my family arranged the funeral and such for my grandmother this week. Unfortunately, Fort Sam (where she’ll be buried with my grandpa) is very backed up on their burial schedule, so the funeral won’t be until the 26th. I admit, it’s a little upsetting to have to wait so long, but at the same time, I console myself that she’ll be buried the day before my grandpa died in 2007 – a symmetry that I think she would have appreciated.

Posted in Personal | Tagged | 5 Comments

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman (audio)

Eleanor Oliphant is a peculiar woman. She has little to no social skills, she speaks so precisely that it borders on absurd, and she is completely detached from emotion. Around her thirtieth birthday, life begins to change. She and a coworker witness an elderly man fall on the street, and they help him get medical help. Slowly, Eleanor’s life is penetrated by Other People, which leads to penetration by Emotion.

Let me start by saying what this book isn’t: This is not a story of “awkward woman meets man and he/love saves her.” This is instead a story of a woman who has suffered terrible traumas in childhood and has learned to cope in the only way she knows how. All her awkwardness and quirks stem from these coping mechanisms, the childhood traumas, and the dysfunctional way she grew up. Eleanor was abused terribly, both physically and emotionally (particularly the latter), until the age of ten, when she entered the care system. These are not spoilers – all this information comes out in the first chapters.

The story is more than just the aftermath of a horrendous childhood, though. Yes, there is horror here, but ultimately, this is a book of hope. Eleanor’s coworker, Raymond, is a very kind person who, despite recognizing that Eleanor is extremely unusual, treats her with courtesy and friendliness. The elderly man they save, Sammy, is gregarious and grateful, and essentially treats his two rescuers as part of his family now. Through these two new people in Eleanor’s life, plus a few personal projects she’s undertaken, Eleanor learns a bit more about what it means to truly interact with others. This isn’t a story of someone saving her, but of a woman who learns that small acts of kindness (performed toward her and by her) are the glue that ties a person to community and friendship.

In tone, the book reminded me very strongly of two others I’ve read. The first is Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, in that Eleanor tends to see her own viewpoint as normal when it is so clearly not (to the reader, at least!). The second was The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, in the way that several isolated people come to take care of each other despite each of their quirks and oddities. It was just as well written as both of those books, and added something special of its own. The setting (Glasgow) was perfectly painted, the pacing was spot-on, and Eleanor’s transformation was very realistic – she grows and learns, but she’s still awkward and oblivious and accidentally rude in her interactions with others. The novel took some painful topics – abuse, alcoholism, severe depression, therapy, among others – and explored them with grace and care.

Others have been raving about this book since it published last year. I admit, this is not a book I ever thought I’d read. I didn’t know much about it, and had somehow gotten the impression that it was a contemporary YA novel. I picked it up now solely because one of my book clubs was reading it. Sometimes fate just intervenes, I suppose. This is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time, and definitely an early contender for 2018 favorites for me. I read it twice back to back, actually, due to some unexpected revelations that made me rethink the earlier parts of the novel, and both reads were wonderful. The audio narrator, Cathleen McCarron, did an absolutely perfect rendition, and made the novel that much more real and present for me. All around, the experience was marvelous, and I highly recommend this book. It is totally worth all the hype and praise that it has received.

Posted in 2018, Adult, Prose | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Wellness Wednesday – Cultivate a Life You Love

Please note: this post was pre-drafted before my grandmother’s health declined. I’m still allowing it to post, but I will be very slow to respond to comments.

Back in the fall, an article on personal happiness popped up in my Facebook news feed that struck home. I didn’t actually read the article in question, because the headline and accompanying blurb were already powerful enough that I felt a bit wretched. I can’t remember the exact words, but essentially the paraphrase is: “Self-care is not about bubble baths and wine. It’s about creating a life that you don’t constantly need to escape.” Having spent my fair number of nights escaping into bubble baths or wine, this kinda hit me right in the heart and gut.

The thing is, I once had a life that I didn’t constantly feel the need to escape from. When I did need escape – often in the evenings after Jason got home from work, since my job as a stay at home mom is 24/7 – it wasn’t an escape from life but a retreat to some alone time for my own sanity. While I’ve never been particularly fond of the SAHM job, it’s important to me, and so I keep it up and make the best of the situation. I figured out ways to be in the world through book clubs, writing groups, NaNoWriMo, book blogs, a bit of travel, and eventually in my health and fitness journey. At home, I exercised and wrote and blogged and read books and took care of the house and my kids. There were good times and bad times, of course, but essentially life felt right.

(Thanksgiving 2012)

That rightness started to crack in July 2013, but I managed to keep cultivating good things until May 2014 when life kicked me into the gutter so hard that I’m just barely starting to fully recover. Everything in my life fell apart. It was at this point that I started to attempt to escape my world rather than self-care. I stress-ate, drank too much, exercised so hard that I’d be crippled for days. I dove into a series of mindless books that distracted me but that I didn’t even record reading. I binge-watched TV shows that I’d already seen, watching over and over just to keep my brain off the wretchedness of my world. Therapy and medication could only help a tiny bit, because the source of all the wretchedness was ever-present and unending. For the first time since my boys were infants/toddlers, I began taking vacations alone purely to get away from home. Then I’d get home after the vacation, during which I’d been happy, and just cry.

Four cross-country moves and a lot of therapy later, I’ve gotten a lot better about many of these things. I’ve started to find things that I enjoy again, rather than mindless escapes. This is a slow process and I’m not always the best at it. That particular article headline/blurb hit me so hard last fall because I realized that despite everything, I still wasn’t happy with my life. So many things were still frail and fractured and painful. It’s hard to know how to build a life you love when so many of the things you cherish were taken from you and can never return. I just had to keep trying.

In November, when I read Oathbringer, I was struck by a quote: “The trick to happiness wasn’t in freezing every momentary pleasure and clinging to each one, but in ensuring one’s life would produce many future moments to anticipate.” In a way, this isn’t much different from what that article stated. The real difference is that one points out a fallacy, and one suggests an action point. For me, one focused on the things I had once and lost, the other focuses on what I need to do to build again. That tiny shift in mindset makes all the difference. I chose the world Cultivate as my one-word in 2018 particularly for this purpose: to cultivate a life of happiness, to cultivate a life I love, to cultivate a life I don’t constantly need to escape from.

(Yes, he’s wearing “ports” – he did it himself)

And I think I’m making progress. Earlier this week, I watched as Jason and my youngest son did yoga together in the evening. Laurence as usual was fussing and complaining the whole time, yelling at Adriene for asking him to do “impossible” things, while simultaneously listening to rap on his headphones. In one pose, he started dancing instead of paying attention, and I asked him if he was listening to music instead of to Adriene. He looked at me and said, “Yeah, of course!” Then he pointed to the video, while Adriene did a couple finger-snaps for whatever reason, and said, “See? She’s listening to rap, too! That was perfectly on the beat!” Then he went back to the yoga, and I had a moment of involuntary thought: Man I love my life. It was the first time in nearly four years that I’ve thought anything close to that.

I don’t expect everything to be perfect or for the rest of this cultivation to be easy. Most days, however, I spend more time working on the things I want to do and less time escaping my life and environment, and that seems a step in the right direction.

Posted in Wellness | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Girl on the Velvet Swing, by Simon Baatz (audio)

Subtitled: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century

Trigger warning: sexual violence
Spoiler warning: These are actual events, so I will discuss details.

In the early 1900s, Evelyn Nesbit was raped by architect Stanford White, who was then supporting her family. Several years later, after Nesbit married a young rich man named Harry Thaw, Thaw murdered White in retribution. The trial that followed was a national sensation. This book is the account of the events leading up to the murder and trial, and the fallout afterwards, including all the contradictory evidence brought forward from multiple sources over many years.

There is a lot of contradictory evidence. Both White and Thaw were accused of sexual and physical violence toward young girls, accusations coupled with varying claims of sadism, drug use, and blackmail. Nesbit changed her stance and testimony about both White and Thaw several times. The book’s afterword said that the truth was never fully uncovered and it’s difficult to tell what the actual story was in places. After listening through the whole audiobook and then reading some additional materials, my conclusions are these:

Thaw was obviously a very nasty man. Whether or not one believes the stories of him threatening his wife after his trials, or that his lawyers tricked Nesbit into lying on the stand, or that he had a right to kill White for his wife’s honor, these two facts stand out. First, he murdered someone in public, possibly taking the law into his own hands, and possibly using Nesbit’s rape as an excuse to get rid of someone who had made his life difficult. Second, long after this particular affair was over and Thaw was eventually a free man again, he attacked and whipped a young man in the same manner he’d been accused of doing to young girls before the trial.

White was also obviously a very nasty man. He was a known serial “seducer” of young girls. It doesn’t matter whether or not he drugged Nesbit and raped her while she was unconscious (one claim she made) or he “seduced” her into losing her virginity (another claim she made). Either way, a man in his late 40s “seducing” a girl of 16 (or younger) is rape. Flat out.

As for Evelyn Nesbit, I hardly know what to think of her, except to feel sorry for her. She was manipulated by the men in her life, and then torn apart by the press for being beautiful and making her way in life via photography and stage acts. People have cast her as a seductress that manipulated those around her, but I’m sorry, she’s was frickin’ 16 years old! Maybe even younger, since there’s some evidence her mother lied about her age and that she was actually 14. I think that, as usual, the woman got blamed when it was the two men who had harmed and used her. It’s hard to know what to think of her only because the records that still exist all show the media’s skewing of her true self to sell a story.

The book was well-written and a good, balanced account – from what I can tell – of the events. I struggled a bit with the parts that don’t add up, and appreciated the afterword where Baatz addresses this. The prose was engaging, and I was interested in reading more about the events when the book was over. Moreover, the audio performance by Christine Lakin was very good and helped to keep me engaged.

Posted in 2018, Adult, Prose | Tagged , , | 2 Comments