Stillhouse Lake, by Rachel Caine

Imagine that you discover that your husband of almost a decade is a serial killer. Imagine finding yourself accused of being an accomplice. Imagine that once you’re acquitted, no one believes that you’re innocent, and the internet trolls at large come after you and your (definitely innocent) children. That’s the world for Gwen Proctor, aka Gina Royal, who has been on the run for four years from the strangers who want to harm her and her family. They’ve landed in a backwoods town in a house at the edge of a lake, and it seems as if her family might finally settle…until bodies start to appear.

So I’m always on the fence about thrillers, and this one? This one lands on the side of excellent. This one has a mystery of course, but the focus is on the psychology. What would it be like to discover that your life was a lie, and then to have no one believe you, and then to have the internet come after you in force, never relenting? What would it be like to receive the kind of hate that Gwen receives, photos of her children’s faces doctored into other situations (from tortured bodies to child pornography to her ex-husband’s victims)? How would the constant paranoia and running affect you and your children? What if you could never trust anyone again? This is what I found most compelling in Stillhouse Lake. So compelling, in fact, that I actually flipped ahead to find out the secrets so that the mystery wouldn’t distract me as I read.

The pacing was excellent. The characters felt human, flawed and nuanced. The psychology – of Gwen, of her kids, of the various people who try to hurt, help, and/or dig into the mystery that is the Proctor family – is all well-researched and spot-on. The thriller is layered and builds tension without resorting to cheap shock-value twists. The novel was definitely a human story – a person caught up in a nightmare world, pushed to the edge of reality, gaslit her whole life and unable to trust her own judgement. Sure, there is murder and a killer and a threat, but that was layered into the bigger story of Gwen’s personal hell and how she pushes through it. That was what really made this book wonderful.

This is the first book in a series. Unlike the last mystery I read, I felt this one firmly wrapped up one story, while opening a teaser to the next in the larger series plot. It was a perfect way to end, and I’m not sure if I’ll move on to Killman Creek immediately or wait a bit to get my bearings first.

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Posted in 2018, Adult, Prose | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Jojo’s Story

As I said Sunday, Jojo’s story begins last Tuesday during Yoga With Cats at the San Antonio Cat Cafe. It was the first time I’d met him, and he walked right up to me, climbed on my feet, and curled into a ball. –>

He stayed by my side the entire night, and after the yoga session, he nestled into my neck. I fell in love, despite having no desire to adopt another cat, especially a kitten. I went back to the cat cafe on Wednesday to get adoption paperwork, then brought Jason to meet him on Thursday. That’s when I found out that Jojo – then named Shadow – kinda curled up with everyone. In fact, he was bony and kinda lethargic and very cold. Since he was a stray originally, we figured he was just underweight. I fed him while holding him and he ate greedily, and I had the worried feeling that he was avoiding the food bowls in the cattery because there were so many other people and cats around.

We were chosen to adopt him, and scheduled to pick him up on Saturday afternoon. When we arrived, however, the owner of the cafe said she had some concerns. Jojo had been losing weight steadily since they brought him in a few weeks earlier, and he had a persistent cough that sounded like he was trying to get up a hairball. The latter didn’t worry me as much since he’s medium-haired, but the weight loss was definitely worrisome. The owner was concerned that he might have a disease called FIP, which is 1) incurable, 2) fatal, and 3) easily spreadable to other cats. Which meant that if we brought him home, he might infect our other three cats with an incurable, fatal disease, and he might die in the next few weeks anyway.

Now, FIP is a rare disease – around 1% – and the only way to diagnose it is to rule out all other options. That’s expensive and uncertain, and I personally had a strong feeling that Jojo’s background as a stray (who seems terrified of people standing over him or holding objects, indicating he met with some Bad Things in his short life) made him particularly susceptible to stress. Jason and I talked, and we decided to spend a few weeks fostering the kitty. We would keep him to our walk-in closet, with a separate food and litter area from our other cats, and wash up really well when we go between our room and the rest of the house. That way, if he does have FIP, he won’t infect our cats, nor will he infect the other cats at the cafe. We can also monitor his weight closely (currently weighing him twice a day) and watch his litter for signs of other problems (like tapeworm).

(Like all cats, he loves crochet…)

As soon as we got Jojo home, he began to come out of that lethargic, shivering, curled-up state. He began to play for the first time. He jumped around to different shelves in the closet, began purring loudly, explored the rest of the bedroom. He immediately started eating and drinking and using the litter box, so the problem is definitely not one with swallowing or something. He had some intestinal upset in the beginning as well, but nothing to indicate tapeworm that we could see. Otherwise, Jojo was immediately friendly toward everyone, though scared whenever someone stood over him or carried something above his head, and he bonded with me immediately. I think he recognizes my scent, because he perks up and runs to me whenever I enter the room.

We took him to the vet on Monday morning, just in case. He had no fever, and his heart and lungs sound fine, and there are no signs of parasites in his stool sample. But the diarrhea is worrisome, and the vet mentioned FIP before we brought it up. She also said it’s possible that the constant change in food might have been upsetting his digestive system, so if we keep his food consistent, he might improve. We’ll see. There are a few hopeful signs, like the fact that he can jump much higher than he used to and he’s begun that kind of restless constant play common in kittens. I really hope these next few weeks at home with us make all the difference to his health!

Posted in Personal | 9 Comments

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 | 10 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.

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