Biking the Coast

My husband and I leave tomorrow for a bike trip along British Columbia's Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island. Rain or shine, we will be out pedaling and seeing the sights. The ride is organized by our local bike club and 15 people will be cycling the route. Needless to say we are quite excited for this adventure.

It's definitely a neat part of the world. Have you ever been? Here's a map of some of the places we will be going.

Although at this time of year "the Sunshine Coast" might get more rain than sunshine, we have plenty of rain gear to wear along the way. We're prepared for wet conditions as long as there's not a deluge of Noah's Ark proportions.

I figure if the landscape is green, mossy, and overcast, it'll likely be good reading weather at the end of each day. I'm bringing along a 2010 novel that my book club picked to discuss in May titled "Annabel" by Kathleen Winter.

She's a Canadian author, and the novel is about an intersex child who's raised as a male but whose shadow-self -- he thinks of as Annabel -- is never entirely extinguished. "Annabel" was shortlisted for both the Giller Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction. So I think it'll be quite good.

Perhaps it will have similar themes to Jeffrey Eugenides's 2002 Pulitzer prize-winning novel "Middlesex," which I still need to read, especially since I enjoyed his 2011 novel "The Marriage Plot."

Anyways, I'll chat more once I get back. Until then, happy reading and happy adventures!

The Martian

Is this book cover cool or what? Kudos to Eric White, its creator. I was lured to this sci-fi novel because of all the good words going on about it on blogs and book sites. It’s been quite the success story. First the author Andy Weir self-published “The Martian” on his website for free in 2012, then he put it on Kindle for 99 cents, and later it was picked up by Crown publisher for six figures and put out again in February of this year. The movie rights for it have already been optioned, and Matt Damon is being rumored for the main role. Wow! Not bad for a first-time author.

Truth be told, I’m not normally a science fiction or space reader, but the synopsis caught my eye. It’s about an astronaut (Mark Watney) whose crew is on a mission on Mars when a violent dust storm hits. Watney’s suit is pierced and he’s flung unconscious out of the crew’s reach. Thinking he’s dead, the others lift off, ending their mission and stranding Watney behind with no way to signal Earth that he’s alive.

Holy smokes, it’s a bleak situation, but Watney’s no quitter. He puts his mind to work on how to survive and reconnect with NASA. And here I thought Robert Redford’s character in the recent movie “All Is Lost” was resourceful, but in that regard Watney leaves him in the dust (so to speak). Watney’s quite the engineer-astronaut-botanist phenomenon. He’s a math-physics nerd but a smart-ass too. He’s got gumption, which apparently doesn’t hurt if you’re left on a totally inhospitable red planet.

“The Martian” drew me in at the start. I absorbed the dire situation as if it were the missing Malaysian airliner whose puzzle needed to be solved. Where in the heck is it? And what would happen to Watney? Being a reader of epic Arctic and Everest survival tales, I pored over this one like a bat out of hell.

Some of the novel takes place on Earth within NASA as they grope with what to do, the other half takes place on Mars as the resourceful Watney tries to overcome his circumstances. It makes for an interesting back and forth.

“The Martian” though is loaded with technical details, which in my opinion gets excessive at times. It’s almost as if the author were adding all the equations and physics suppositions to show how smart he is. On the one hand, it’s great having a lot of scientific details in the novel to make it seem real, but the constant equation set-ups clogged it up at times. In places, it sort of felt like reading a textbook instead of an action thriller. My mind fuzzed over some of the scientific and math thought processes, and the middle of the book sagged for me, as Watney carried out a lot of tests for his proposed rescue plans. No wonder I gave this book to my husband to read first; he’s an engineer he probably liked all these endless details.

But luckily “The Martian” picks up towards the end. And how it all plays out is worth sticking around for. I imagine the movie of it could be quite riveting. Despite the excessive details, I’m still amazed about the author’s knowledge of space and that he made “The Martian” into such a believable tale. It might not be for everybody, but if you're a nerdy fan of the final frontier and such, you'll inevitably like this one, too.

A Preview of April Releases

April is already racing by so I'm putting out my picks pronto for this month. But before I do that, I wanted to say how sorry I was to hear that author Peter Matthiessen had recently died, and right before his latest novel “In Paradise” was due out. Ugh what a great writer, especially on topics about the natural world. I recall reading his nonfiction book “The Snow Leopard” in my twenties and being quite moved by it. If you get a chance, check it out along with his others. Have you read any of his books? And what did you think?

For April, there seems to be a number of good novels coming out (see list at right). I’m drawn to read “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin about a bookstore owner on Alice Island (a fictional Martha’s Vineyard), who goes through a transformation of sorts, and redemption. Booklist says the novel’s also an homage to bookstores that “perfectly captures the joy of connecting people and books.” As a former indie bookstore employee, I can't resist this new well-regarded novel that touches on the ins and outs of bookselling.

Meanwhile, “Be Safe I Love You” by Cara Hoffman is my edgier pick for April about the troubled homecoming of a female U.S. soldier who returns from a tour of duty in Iraq in time to spend the holidays with her family. All appears fine, as she offers to take her brother on a trip to visit their mother in upstate New York, but they wind up traveling to Canada instead. Library Journal calls the novel a searing tale of the “corrosive effects of war on the psyche,” and Ms. magazine says it's “a riveting suspense story.” So I hope not to miss it.

Lastly I’m curious about Ayelet Waldman’s novel “Love and Treasure,” which weaves a story around the true history of the Hungarian Gold Train in WWII. Apparently the train carried a trove of stolen goods taken from Jews in Hungary and was bound for Germany when Allied soldiers intercepted it. Some of the trove was then re-stolen. The Boston Globe says the “book’s best moments explore subtle ambiguities ... the human stories behind the looted objects flicker into life.” I haven’t read Waldman before but have heard good things about her books so I think I should give this one a try.

For movies in April (see list at left), I’m interested in seeing “The Railway Man,” which is based on the book by Eric Lomax, a British Army officer who was sent to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1942. Years after the war, Lomax set out to confront the man responsible for his torture there, which the movie explores. It stars Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, which isn’t too shabby. I’ll likely see it if comes out around here.

Another film I’ll likely see is “Hateship, Loveship,” which is based on the Alice Munro short story. Holy smokes I didn’t know this was in the works. It looks like a quaint love story among outsiders, starring Kristen Wiig and Guy Pierce. You can’t go wrong there.

Even Nicolas Cage’s new movie “Joe,” which is based on the novel by Larry Brown, looks to be pretty good. It’s about an ex-con who helps a 15-year-old boy in a rough situation. The trailer reminded me slightly of the movie “Mud,” which I liked quite a bit, so I think I’ll see this one, too.

Lastly for albums in April (see list at bottom right), I plan to check out Joan Osborne’s “Love and Hate.” She’s always had a great sultry voice so I think there will be some songs worth checking out.

How about you -- which new books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?

The Sunday Salon: "Divergent" and "Rosie"

I’ve been AWOL for about two weeks from blogging. I went “Divergent” so to speak. I traveled to the Washington, D.C. and the Northern Virginia area for my adult “spring break,” visiting old friends from when I once lived there and seeing some sights. It was a really fun trip. To the left is a photo of the National Gallery of Art, where I saw an interesting exhibit, a portrait of American life, from the photos Garry Winogrand took from the 1950s to his death in 1984. Check out the exhibit if you get a chance.

Then after getting back home our dog Stella became ill and had to go to the emergency vet hospital, which turned our world upside down. After 3 1/2 days of care there, it appears luckily she’s going to be okay to our great relief. She had tested positive for exposure to an antifreeze-type of toxin, which we don’t know exactly where she was exposed to, but we are taking all precautions and have taken our car to get checked for any leaks. We are so fortunate to have her back from what was a life-threatening situation. I think my anxiety went through the roof, but we were very lucky and now she’s back home being her regular Lab self. Oh thank goodness!

I did read “Divergent” while flying back and forth from D.C. Surely, Veronica Roth’s 2011 dystopian young-adult novel made for a good airplane/spring-break-kind-of read, even though I’m typically not a frequent YA reader. It’s got action, suspense, a little love story and an easy reading level. (Maybe too easy?) Am I the last one to have read this bestseller? Probably. I plan to see the movie of it soon, but I haven’t seen it just yet. The movie took in $56 million on its opening weekend, which isn’t too shabby but is nowhere near “The Hunger Games” box-office haul.

If I were to compare the “Divergent” book to “The Hunger Games,” I’d have to say that I found Suzanne Collins’s book better written, but I still enjoyed “Divergent” and found it somewhat similar; they both have 16-year-old protagonists who must undergo enormous physical challenges in a post-apocalyptic world. “Divergent’s” premise though seemed rather hokey to me that people were divided into factions based on their predispositions to Candor, Erudite, Dauntless, Abnegation and Amity. On their way to building a utopia it seems the survivors must have forgotten their heads, believing that by separating people by character would solve society’s problems. (Good luck with that.) But what the heck, I was going to go with it.

The book gets good though when Tris goes off to undergo the initiation process for the Dauntless (brave) faction. The dueling cliques that form between the initiates and the training scenes are some of the best, as Tris jumps in and out of trains, hurls down a wire from the top of the old Sears Tower, and goes through exposure therapy and simulations to try to eradicate fears. The training reminded me a bit of the book “Ender’s Game.” Though along the way Tris falls for her trainer, which isn’t in that one.

And of course, she has a secret and isn’t solely Dauntless. The ending is an action page-turner as the Erudite faction tries to violently take control and Tris is one of the few who can stop them. I look forward to seeing how the movie handles the book. One movie critic I read said the movie is “more satisfying than the bestseller that inspired it.” Could it be true? Have you seen it and what did you think?

On top of “Divergent,” I just finished “The Rosie Project,” which is a romantic comedy that I read for my book club. We are going to discuss it on Tuesday, so I will gather my thoughts about it and write more later. I did mostly enjoy “The Rosie Project” and thought it was clever. It's about a socially-challenged man’s search for the perfect wife. By the time Rosie comes along she's so wrong according to his criteria but so right for him regardless. The story's both funny and charming.

What did you think? Have you read this one?

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Well the polar vortex ended last Friday and a glimpse of spring has arrived today in western Canada with 55 degree weather. That translates into Miami temps for this time of year here. We’re loving it for sure!

I’ve been meandering a bit with my reading, but just finished Ann Patchett’s nonfiction book of essays called “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” which came out last November. My sister gave it to me for Christmas. I love the title; it makes you want to know if she’s being real, or if she has some secret cornucopia of knowledge about marriage. I was sure I would devour the collection in no time at all, but I’ve been enjoying it this past week more slowly like a glass of fine wine. I find there seems to be more to absorb in nonfiction and it takes me a bit longer than a novel to get through, generally speaking.

But I liked reading it slowly as it’s a great book and I would highly recommend it, especially to people who are interested in writing, or in the aspects of a writer’s life. It’s quite personal and the combined 22 essays flow together almost as if you were reading a memoir. There’s chapters on just about every facet of Patchett’s life including her childhood and family, how she became a successful writer and co-bookstore owner, her divorce and eventual second marriage, and her life in Nashville. It’s all there: her loves, losses and how writing has always been her mission in life, which she's worked very hard at doing both as a journalist and as a novelist.

The way she writes these essays it’s almost as if you know her and she’s telling you like she would a friend, candidly and confiding. She's often funny and self-effacing. The essays are a genuine treat to read, her descriptions and observations reveal truths about life in various episodes. I was lured into them eagerly like a bee to a bonnet. It made me wonder if Patchett’s actually a better nonfiction writer than she is a novelist. This collection made me think so. Granted, I have read just two of her novels so far, one of which “State of Wonder” I liked quite a bit; the other “Run” I didn’t care for that much. But I’d like to read her novel “Bel Canto,” which I’ve heard is her very best.

Meanwhile this nonfiction collection knocked it out of the park for me. I especially appreciated her essay “The Getaway Car,” which gives useful advice if you're interested in writing, and a candid perspective on being a writer. I also found interesting her foray into becoming a bookstore co-owner, which she writes about in “The Bookstore Strikes Back.” And the title essay “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” about the long road to love she found with her second husband is a poignant piece that might remind one that sometimes you don’t realize the really good thing or person you’ve got till they're (almost) gone.

I enjoyed about all of the essays in this book. She even writes about her very dear dog Rose in “This Dog’s Life” and “Dog Without End,” which made me happy being such a dog lover. I guess only one essay “The Mercies” about the former Catholic nuns who taught her school and befriended her I found a bit convoluted and didn’t draw me in as much as the others. But on the whole, I was quite taken with this volume and will keep it to reread pieces again in the future.

What about you -- have you read this book or others by her? Or do you plan to?

March Preview

March has arrived but you wouldn’t really know it because the temperatures have been so cold across Canada. Blah. But I can still dream of spring. And now that the Super Bowl, the Olympics, and the Academy Awards are over, we can get back to regular programming so to speak.

Speaking of which, I’m still surprised that “Gravity” won seven Oscars on Sunday, and “American Hustle” was completely shut out. Of course I agree “Gravity” had stunning visual and special effects but I didn’t think there was much of a story, other than hurdling through space and trying to get from point A to point B by your untethered self, which seemed pretty unlikely or unrealistic. Oh well, give space movies a break. It’s cold and pretty out there.

Moving on to March releases, there’s not a huge amount to snatch up this month, which surprises me a bit after the onslaught of good releases the past two months, but a few did catch my eye. In literary fiction (see list at right), I’m picking “Roosevelt’s Beast” by Louis Bayard, which looks to be a fun adventurous read if you’re up for a jungle excursion. It’s a reimagining of Theodore Roosevelt and his son's ill-fated 1914 expedition to the Amazon. It sounds like a journey part “King Kong” and part “Heart of Darkness” with its psychological twist, but I’ll have to read it to see. I have not read Bayard, who's know for his thought-provoking thrillers, before so that's enticing, too.

I’m also picking Rene Denfeld’s debut novel “The Enchanted,” which is receiving a lot of high praise. I’m usually not into novels set in prison such as this one is, but it sounds quite different and a bit magical -- about a prisoner and a death row investigator who uncovers some wrenching truths. Fellow author Erin Morgenstern says it’s “a wondrous book that finds transcendence in the most unlikely of places . . . So dark yet so exquisite.” And author Katherine Dunn calls “The Enchanted” “contagious” and “seductive” ... “unlike anything I’ve ever read.” Along with other praise, I’m quite curious about this one, so sign me up!

As for March movies (see list at left), I’ve got to pick “Divergent,” based on the hugely popular young-adult novel by Veronica Roth. Oh yeah I’ll be there in the box office line, but first I still have to read the dystopian, sci-fi book that spawned the movie and trilogy. Yep I’m behind the times. But how much more dystopia can I take? Oh well, at least another. I hope to devour the book, and by then I’ll need to know if Shailene Woodley will deliver as Tris, and if the movie will be any good. What do you think?

Lastly in album releases for March (see list at bottom right), I’m most looking forward to indie band Foster the People’s album “Supermodel,” which is the follow-up to their successful debut “Torches” from 2011. One of the singles off “Supermodel,” “Coming of Age” has a cool sound and vibe to it, so I think the album should be a great release. I’m planning to check it out in full when it comes out mid-March.

How about you -- which new books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?

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