Saturday, December 31, 2016
It's hard to believe that 2016 is over already. It feels like only a few months ago that I was sitting down to make a list of resolutions and mapping out what I wanted to read. Looking back now, I'm proud of what I accomplished. I stuck to my plan of reading books from different themes each month, and posted a blog review for everything I read. I completed my Back to the Classics reading challenge. I read more diversely than I ever have before, and I felt more engaged and reflective throughout the reading process than in previous years.
A peek at Goodreads tells me that I read 76 total books in 2016, which equates to 25,714 pages. Out of all those reads, I rated 42 of them at 4 or 5 stars. I found a handful of new favorites and didn't end up reading too many stinkers. I solved my first mystery with Sherlock Holmes, journeyed 20,000 leagues under the sea with Captain Nemo, and fell down the rabbit hole with Alice. I crawled around a haunted opera house with the Phantom of the Opera, plotted a revenge scheme with the Count of Monte Cristo, and rang the bells of Notre Dame with Quasimodo. I studied chimpanzees with Jane Goodall in Gombe, journeyed into the Arctic with the U.S.S. Jeannette, and watched Owen Meany make the best shot of his life. It was a wonderful year for reading overall. Here's a breakdown of what my months looked like:
January: Science Fiction
February: Books with Diverse Protagonists
March: Strong Women
May: Kindle Books
June: Adventure Books
July: Favorite Authors
August: Books from my Shelves
September: Scary Books
October: Banned Books
November: Fantasy Books
December: Award-Winning Books
Back the the Classics Challenge Wrap Up
My Favorite Reads of 2016: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My Least Favorite Reads of 2016: Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt, You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero
That being said, there is one area that I want to be better in during 2017. I have an unfortunate tendency to slip into bouts of mild depression sometimes. I believe this is linked to some anxiety issues I have combined with a stressful work environment. When I go into these phases, I stop reading (well, stop doing everything, really) and I know this isn't good for me. One of my resolutions for the new year is to take better care of myself so that this doesn't happen. Reading is one of the big lights in my life, and going through periods where I'm not reading make the issues I am struggling with worse. I want to read every single day in 2017.
I'm also feeling a little hesitant towards the future. The results of our last election hurt me deeply and threw me into a funk that I still haven't completely recovered from. When I think about 2017, there's a good measure of fear in there - fear about healthcare costs, fear about my rights over my own body, fear for the state of the environment, and fear for how ugly the world seems now. I think that taking better care of myself and reading each day will help remind me that the future can still be bright and that goodness still exists out there. If nothing else, I can at least get lost in different worlds for a little while.
I hope that everyone out there who is reflecting on the past and planning out their 2017 reading goals has a bright and successful new year full of great books, hot mugs of tea, and a good amount of peace and quiet.
My very last read of 2016 wasn't a part of my theme-reading. It was more like a "get ready for 2017" pick. I'm looking to improve my health in the new year, with a special emphasis on fixing my relationship with food. It Starts With Food, by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig outlines a program to do just that, called the Whole30. I'm going to give it a try starting January 1st, so I wanted to explore this book to get all the background information I need before getting started.
This book is part diet philosophy, part scientific information about food, and part instructional manual for the Whole30 program. It also includes some recipes and a list of resources in the back to help readers take their knowledge about the program, and about how food impacts our bodies in general, to the next level. As I'm not a particularly science-minded person, some of the technical information was a bit tricky to understand, but in general, the Whole30 program is about changing the food we eat to help our bodies function the way they were designed to. This means getting rid of food that promotes unhealthy psychological, hormonal, digestive, or inflammatory responses and eating food that truly nourishes our bodies. It's similar to Paleo diets in that it cuts out processed foods and focuses on natural, healthy choices.
The most famous part of the program (and the part that caught on like wildfire across the internet last year), is the initial 30 day nutritional reset. When first starting the program, you must complete a 30 day cycle of eating only meats, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats. Added sugar, pasta, dairy, soy, and alcohol, among other nutritionally dubious items, are not allowed. The Hartwig's theory is that your body needs a sufficiently long enough period to reset itself and begin healing from the years of damage you've probably done to it. After the strict 30 days are over, the book outlines a plan to slowly integrate some of the previously-forbidden foods back in to see if any of them make you sick.
An additional benefit of the initial 30 day reset is that it will supposedly help break people away from sugar and carb addictions and make it easier to resist these types of food in the future. Also, there is no calorie counting required, which I think is a great. The program as a whole is meant to help promote lifelong change in a person's relationship with food. I'm really hoping that this turns out to be true when I try it, because I've struggled with sticking to a healthy eating plan for years now. In 2017, I want to try something a little more strict, and this seems to fit the bill.
It Starts With Food promotes a very healthy eating plan and makes an intuitive sort of sense. The information presented is laid out well and is fairly easy to understand. However, I'm not 100% sure that I buy everything the Hartwigs are selling. I suspect that the benefits of this program might be a bit overstated and verge into "too good to be true" territory. For example, they claim that sticking to this program can help to reverse a ton of health ailments, including allergies, migraines, and asthma. I don't doubt that the food we eat is tied to a lot of different medical issues, but I've never heard of a diet's ability to cure something like an allergy. I'm going to have to reserve judgement on how miraculous this program really is until I've tried it for myself. I hope it really is as life-changing as the authors state!
This was an interesting read, and I'm eager to try out this program for myself. The accessible language, the scientific research, and the wealth of additional resources included in the appendix make this a great introduction for people interested in trying the Whole30. It wasn't a particularly exciting read, but it contains a lot of great information for people who want to repair their relationship with food and get healthier.
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
|Image from Popsugar.com|
My month of reading award-winning novels has come to an end, and with it, my year of reading books inspired by monthly themes. It's the end of a really fun journey, but I'll talk more about that in a different post.
I didn't read a large amount of books this month, but what I did read was fantastic. Seeking out novels that have won awards seems to be a very reliable way to find new favorites. Reading them is generally an emotional experience, however, so you have to be in the right mood when picking up one of these.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thannha Lai
Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Best of the Month: All the Light We Cannot See
Worst of the Month: There were no worsts! Everything was awesome.
In my future reading endeavors, I'm definitely going to pay more attention to the books that win awards. I've responded very favorably to these this month, and I look forward to experiencing more literary greatness in the new year. I've already slated the Pulitzer Prize winner from 2016, The Sympathizer, as one of my reads for January (since I didn't have time to squeeze it in this month and I really want to get to it).
I'm not trying to say that only award-winning novels are worth reading, and I'm not trying to turn into some sort of book snob. However, I have found that I usually do like the books that end up with a shiny medal on their covers. This month really taught me that I should keep up to date on what's going on in the world of literature so that I can find new, complex, emotional literature.
All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer in 2015, making it a perfect choice to round out my month of award-winning reads. I had heard good things about this novel in a general sense before reading, but I didn't quite know what it was about when I picked it up. The inside flap of the book wasn't overly illuminating either, so I went into my reading not knowing what to expect. Obviously, you expect a book that won the Pulitzer to be awesome, but my experience with this novel went far beyond that. I was utterly floored by the brilliance of this one.
The plot of this novel focuses on the experiences of two children growing up during WWII. The first child, Marie, is a young French girl who becomes blind at the age of six. She lives with her father, who is in charge of the thousands of locks and keys at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. When Marie's vision first fails, her father builds her a perfect wooden model of their section of Paris, with all of its streets, buildings, benches and storm drains included. Patiently, he teaches her how to use the model to memorize her city and make her way around unaided. As Marie learns to live with her blindness and grows up a bit, her life is flung into chaos when Germany invades and occupies France. Suddenly, she has to leave the only home she's ever known and live with her uncle in Saint Malo, a walled city on the coast of France. Hunger, fear and uncertainty begin to color her days as she learns how to survive in a new city during wartime while blind.
The second child, Werner Pfennig, is a young German orphan. He lives in an orphanage, with his sister Jutta, in Zollverein, a town dominated by its coal mine. As the novel opens, his life is difficult. With Germany suffering under the reparations from WWI, there is never enough food to go around, and no money for basic necessities, like clothing, shoes, and blankets. However Werner is an unusually curious and scientifically-minded child. He discovers a talent for repairing radios, which catches the attention of a German military official who is stationed in the area. As Hitler rises to power, and WWII begins, Werner is selected to attend a special school for the Hitler Youth, to further develop his skill with radios and aid in the war effort. He is uncomfortable with the practices of the German military, but the possibility of becoming a scientist and avoiding a life of working in a coal mine keeps him following the party line.
The perspective of the novel jumps around very frequently, and alternates mainly between Marie and Werner's perspectives. Chapter length is kept extremely short, with most chapters being around 2-3 pages long. These frequent changes are effective at maintaining the momentum of the story. As both threads of the plot are equally interesting, I didn't mind the frequency of the shifts. The novel also jumps backwards and forwards in time, with some sections taking place in 1944, where the climax of the novel is occurring, and other sections taking place throughout the 1930s. Doerr handles these time changes absolutely masterfully. They increase the suspense of the novel perfectly, and help the reader make connections between the past and present timelines. While reading, one gets the sense that all of the story threads are slowly pulling you in towards a final great moment. When Marie and Werner's stories finally crash together, it is so incredibly satisfying, because the buildup was done so well.
Aside from the engaging plot construction, Doerr's language was similarly noteworthy. This sounds unnecessary to say about a writer, but Doerr really has a way with words. His sentences are filled with vivid imagery and have a rhythm that makes reading his work a real pleasure. It is no coincidence that Goodreads has 26 pages worth of quotes from this novel on their site. From describing a woman as being "like a great moving wall of rosebushes, thorny and fragrant and crackling with bees" to encouraging one to, "open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever," All the Light is packed with beautiful, musical prose that will stick in your head long after you finish reading. I often found myself pausing to reread sections of the novel, and I'm not generally one to do that a lot.
Interestingly enough, this novel formed a beautiful circle in my personal reading goals this year. When I first started out my months of theme reading for 2016, the very first book I read was Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I have done a year's worth of reading between then and now, and finally arrived at All the Light We Cannot See, my last themed-read of the year. It is nothing short of poetry that one of the great joys of Marie's life is reading her braille books, and the one she reads over and over throughout the novel is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Each quote and reference this novel draws from Verne's classic brought back a lot of memories for me and reminded my about how much I've read throughout the year. In a way, I'm ending back at the beginning, and that's pretty cool. I couldn't have planned it any better.
All the Light We Cannot See is a very special novel, and one of my best reads of the year. This new favorite holds a place in my heart now and it was the perfect way to end my themed reads of 2016.
Thursday, December 22, 2016
I am embarrassed to say that A.S. King's Please Ignore Vera Dietz has been sitting on my bookshelf for years, waiting for me to pick it up. I first ran across this Printz Honors-winning novel on one of those "best young adult fiction" type lists online. I hadn't heard of it before, so my interest was piqued. Later on, I happened to see a copy of it sitting out on a display table at Barnes and Noble, so I picked it up. I stuck it on my shelf and promptly forgot about it for several years. While looking for some shorter award-winners to read this month, I rediscovered Vera Dietz, noted the shiny medal on its cover, and finally read it. I was pleased to discover that it was very deserving of the critical recognition that it has received.
The plot centers around the relationship between Vera Dietz and Charlie Kahn, two teenagers that have been neighbors and best friends since they were four. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Charlie has recently died under somewhat mysterious and dark circumstances, that this has happened roughly five months after Vera and Charlie broke off their friendship over a deep (but currently unexplained) betrayal,and that Vera knows something about the circumstances surrounding Charlie's death that she is refusing to come forward with. Immediately, the reader is drawn into the mystery. Finding out exactly what happened between Vera and Charlie, however, is quite a journey.
The narration is handled primarily by Vera, but occasionally the exposition duties shift around to Vera's father Ken, Charlie, and (oddly) a town landmark for short passages. In addition to narrator hopping, time hops around as well. Vera narrates her present day experiences, as well as her past together with Charlie. Eventually, her flashback chapters and present day chapters converge to show a semi-complete version of how the pair were driven apart and what led to Charlie's death. One of the novel's strongest points is how the reader is burdened with this knowledge that everything is going to end very badly for Charlie, and that's sad to see happen, but at the same time, the reader feels anxious to learn the details of his death. This little internal tug of war makes for a very engaging and emotional reading experience.
Another highlight of the novel are the well-developed characters. A.S. King presents Vera and Charlie as vividly real people with strengths and flaws. Vera is responsible, holds down a full time job, earns excellent grades at school, and has a deeply rooted sense of right and wrong. She knows not to "give the best of [herself] to the worst of people." However, she struggles with a family history of alcohol addiction and is unable to process the grief she feels from her mother abandoning her and her father a few years ago. Charlie is a free spirit with irresistible charm, but he is hobbled by an abusive home life and disconnected parents. He is described as "[living] hard because inside he was dying." King tells their stories with such emotional honesty that one can't help but feel invested in them.
One of the major themes in the novel is the idea of destiny, and how much control one can exercise over it. Both Vera and Charlie have elements in their past that threaten to consume them. Vera is desperate to avoid both following in her mother's careless footsteps and falling into the family history of alcoholism on her father's side. Charlie is afraid of becoming like his father, and perpetuating a cycle of domestic violence in his own future family. Eventually Charlie succumbs to his background, while Vera does not. Their diverging paths are beautiful and tragic to watch side by side. Ultimately, the novel encourages readers to speak up, care for others, and make their own pathways through life. Life can be endlessly difficult, but as Vera reminds us:
"I'm sorry, but I don't get it. If we're supposed to ignore everything that's wrong with our lives, then I can't see how we'll ever make things right."Please Ignore Vera Dietz is exactly the type of young adult fiction that I love - character-driven, emotionally complex work. Fans of Rainbow Rowell, Jandy Nelson, or John Green would do well to pick up this novel. Everything doesn't end nicely in this story. It's not that kind of book. However, it does end on hope, and encourages the reader to take control of their own fate. This is a well-crafted read that is definitely worth the time.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
It's almost 2017, which means that I have been keeping up my blog for almost a whole year (which is the best job I've ever done keeping up a blog). It also means that it's time to decide on my reading goals for the new year - my very favorite thing to plan!
In 2016, I created a list of themes for each month, and stuck to reading those types of books. It was a lot of fun and definitely diversified my reading. This year, I'm going to take a more random kind of approach. The overall goal will still be to diversify my reading, but won't be as restrictive as sticking to one theme for a whole month.
I've found a couple of reading challenges around the internet that I'm going to combine and work on throughout the year. I want to test myself and see how much of these I can finish before the year is out. My overall goals are to read more books than I did in 2016, read even more classic novels, and read a lot books from my shelves/Kindle. I'm not going to plan everything I want to read out at this point, because I want to let my mood at the time direct some of my choices.
Here is a list of the challenges I have picked for the year:
Goodreads Goal: Read 76 books
Back to the Classics Challenge 2017: I completed this challenge this year, and I'm going back for more in 2017. This one is all planned out already, and the details are in my sign up post.
Classic Club Challenge: I've decided to sign up for this challenge in 2017, which encourages people to read at least 50 classic novels over the course of five years. Being the overachiever that I am, I have decided to try and read 100 classic in five years. My goal for 2017 is to cross 20 books off my list. My complete Classics Club list is located here.
Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017: This challenge encourages readers to finish books that they already own. It is perfect for someone like me, who owns enough books to fill up a library and hasn't read most of them. For this challenge, I am signing up for the Mount Kilimanjaro level, which means I need to read 60 books I already own throughout the course of the year.
Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017: This challenge presents readers with a list of 40 reading prompts (plus a dozen extra for overachievers) to try and complete throughout the year. The categories are random and very diverse, ranging from things like, "an espionage thriller" to "a book with a cat on the cover." I'm interested to see how far I can get with these. I'm not planning out my reads ahead of time on this one, but I will be keeping a list of my progress in this post.
As usual, I'm anxious to get started on these! It feels like a long wait to 2017. I'm hoping for a year of reading that is even more successful than this one has been.
This is the spot where I will be keeping track of my progress in the Popsugar 2017 Reading challenge. I'm not planning out these reads ahead of time, but I will come back to this post to link up my reviews as I go along.
Popsugar 2017 Reading Challenge List
*Bonus Categories* - To be completed if the original 40 are completed before the year is out!
Despite my best efforts to get my reading back on track, December has been slipping away from me at an alarming rate. With only eleven days left in the month, I decided to read some shorter award-winners than I had originally planned. Inside Out & Back Again, the story of a young girl who flees Saigon with her family just prior to the end of the Vietnam War, is a novel that just recently popped up on my radar. I came across this title while searching for a novel to read with my eighth grade language arts students.
A little bit of research revealed that this refugee story by Thanhha Lai was a New York Times Bestseller, and was the recipient of a Newberry Medal and a National Book Award. Although I ultimately passed this one over for my class novel, I was curious enough to purchase a copy for myself so I could check it out. I was not disappointed.
Inside Out focuses on Ha, a ten year old Vietnamese girl who lives in Saigon with her mother and brothers in 1975. The novel is divided into four main sections, which detail Ha's life in Saigon, her escape to America, her new life in Alabama, and her "new normal" once she begins to adjust to living in a new country. Ha tells her own story in the form of free verse journal entries, which effectively communicate her feelings through their vivid imagery.
Lai's use of free verse means that Inside Out is a very quick read, but the novel is still deeply moving and engaging. While it won't take most readers very long to finish, its message will stick in your head long after you turn the final page. Ha's beautiful poetry brings the reader on an emotional journey that encompasses all of the difficulties refugees face, including the pain of watching your homeland be destroyed, living in poverty, struggling to learn a different language, dealing with prejudice, and trying to find a way to live in a place that feels utterly alien to you. I often found myself pausing during my reading to read certain passages again, just to spend some time with the language.
My favorite passage was one titled "War and Peace," which is about when Ha's teacher attempts to explain Vietnam to her fourth grade class:
MiSSS SScottshows the classphotographsof a burned, naked girlrunning, cryingdown a dirt roadof people climbing, screaming,desperate to get onthe last helicopterout of Saigonof skeletal refugees,crammed aboard asinking fishing boat,reaching up to the heavensfor helpof mound of combat bootsabandoned by soldiersof the losing side.She's telling the classwhere I'm from.She should have shownsomething aboutpapayas and Tet.No one would believe mebut at timesI would choosewartime in Saigonoverpeacetime in Alabama.
Inside Out & Back Again is a remarkably beautiful novel, and one that is well deserving of all the honors that have been heaped upon it. Anyone who isn't wild about novels written in verse (like myself, usually) shouldn't be nervous about picking this one up. The choppy, poetic style is perfect for expressing the feelings of a young girl just learning English and going through an emotional time in her life. It doesn't feel forced, nor is it difficult to understand.
And what's more, perhaps the best thing about this novel is that it provides a pathway to understanding the refugee experience that could help open people's minds and hearts to the plight of those who have to flee their countries today. Empathy seems to be an emotion that is in particularly short supply in America lately. I have always been a believer in the power of literature to create social change, and books like this could help do it.
While I ended up selecting a nonfiction title for my classroom this year, Inside Out & Back Again will be the novel that I ask for next year. For both literary merit, and the honest depiction of the struggle refugees face, this book is wonderful and necessary.
Sunday, December 18, 2016
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas is the first installment in what is currently a five book fantasy series for young adults. The story centers around a skilled assassin named Celaena Sardothien who becomes involved in a competition to become the King's Champion. This series has drawn comparisons to other fantasy series that are heavy on violence and political intrigue, like George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones. The idea of a complex young adult fantasy series centered around a non-princess character initially appealed to me, and rave reviews of the book from fans on the internet sealed the deal. I picked up the the 400 page tome and dove in.
The story begins with Celaena being rescued from a forced labor camp in the barren salt mines of Endovier by Prince Dorian Havilliard of Adarlan and his Captain of the Guard, Chaol Westfall. The prince presents her with an interesting proposition - a chance to compete in a competition to become the King's Champion. If she is able to defeat all of the other competitors in a series of challenges held at the imposing glass castle in Rifthold, she will win a contract to work for the king for four years. Once her contract has expires, she will be free to do as she wishes. Unable to refuse such an opportunity, Celaena sets out with the prince immediately.
Much of Celaena's background is left shrouded in ambiguity. The reader is made to understand that her past is very painful to her, and thinking about it brings back memories and feelings that she is unable to process. What is clear is that her parents were killed when Celaena was very young, the King of Adarlan was somehow involved, and she was trained to become a world-class assassin by the man who discovered her struggling on her own as an orphan. She has a fearsome reputation as a killer-for-hire, but not many know what she looks like. Wishing to maintain this advantage over her competition, she competes with a false name and backstory.
Upon reaching Rifthold, Celaena begins training with both Dorian and Chaol, and performs well in the initial stages of the competition. However, as time goes by, mysterious deaths start occurring in the castle. Someone is picking off the competitors one by one, in a particularly gruesome fashion. Fearing for her own safety, Celaena is drawn into the mystery as she fights to protect herself from the unknown killer in her midst and to win the competition that will secure her eventual freedom.
Having finally finished this novel, I have very mixed feelings on it. Despite having an interesting premise and a strong female protagonist, I was never truly drawn into Celaena's world. This should have been a three or four day read for me, and it ended up taking weeks because I simply wasn't excited to read it. The length was an issue. While the plot was definitely complex, this book didn't need to be 400 pages. There were long stretches where not very much of note happened. I have no objections to reading longer books, but this felt over-long to me. Even so, there were enough great and interesting scenes to prevent me from giving up on it entirely. I was still interested in seeing how the story ended, but I wasn't particularly enjoying the journey.
I also found myself rolling my eyes a bit at some aspects of Celaena's character. I loved that she was strong, independent, and able to take care of herself. However, I hated that she was so good at almost everything. Her list of talents is seemingly endless, and includes the ability to wield any weapon expertly, to play piano beautifully, to speak multiple languages, to analyze crime scenes like a modern forensic expert, to get along with any animal, to dance like a lady of the court, to read more books than anyone else, and to woo any man instantly with her charms. Even worse, within the first hundred pages of the novel, both Prince Dorian and Chaol Westfall are deeply in love with Celaena, setting up a love triangle that grew very tiresome. I found myself cringing through scenes of awkward flirting, wanting to get back to the murderer-running-loose-in-the-castle part of the story.
In her zeal to make Celaena a strong character, Maas went overboard on giving her talents. To be a strong woman doesn't mean that you have to excel in everything you put your hand to. That is just as unrealistic as a female character that can't do anything and is constantly in need of rescue.
An interview with Sarah J. Maas was included in the back of my edition of the novel. In the interview, Maas explains that this book took something like ten years to reach its final form, and she started writing it in high school. That, I think, more than anything else helps explain the issues I found with Celaena's character. It does feel like a high school girl designed her personality - too many super-cool traits and basically no flaws. This probably also explains the length. Ten years is a long time to keep thinking of things to include and adding them in. This novel needed some trimming down, but maybe cutting big sections is too painful to consider when your been working on a project since you were a kid.
Despite these annoyances though, the story was still interesting enough to keep me reading until the end. It was an okay read for me, but not a favorite. I don't think that I'll be interested in picking up the rest of the series, since they are all just as long as the first one, but I do think that young adults who are into fantasy and mystery will love Throne of Glass and all of the other books that come after.
Sunday, December 4, 2016
|Image from Karen K. at Books and Chocolate|
Well, here we are again! After having a ton of fun this year participating in the Back to the Classics Challenge, I've decided to sign up again for 2017!
The challenge is essentially the same as last year, with the overall goal being to read twelve classic novels throughout the course of the year. The novels must fit into the twelve different challenge categories set by Karen K., and must be at least fifty years old (published by 1967). Some of the categories are the same as last year, and some are different. After thinking over what I would like to read in the coming year, here is my plan:
1. A 19th Century Classic: Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864)
2. A 20th Century Classic: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
3. A Classic by a Woman Author: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)
4. A Classic in Translation: Germinal by Émile Zola (1885)
5. A Classic Published Before 1800: King Lear by William Shakespeare (c. 1606)
6. A Romance Classic: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)
7. A Gothic or Horror Classic: Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
8. A Classic with a Number in the Title: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
9. A Classic about an Animal: Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877)
10. A Classic Set in a Place You'd Like to Visit: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
11. An Award-Winning Classic: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1963)
12. A Russian Classic: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)
There are quite a few books on here that I've been meaning to read for a long time, so I'm excited to get started. I'm ready for 2017! If anyone else out there is interested in signing up too, here is a link to the challenge page.
For the month of December, I will be reading books that have won awards. I'm hoping that this theme will introduce me to some new favorites, as well as allow me to catch up on reading some of the books that people are currently talking about. I read more than anyone I know, but since I always have a huge backlog of books to catch up on, I rarely pick up anything that has just been released. I'm making it a point to include some works that are currently popular (as in, they won their awards within the last few years or so).
Here's the plan for the month:
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen - This novel about a communist double agent from Vietnam won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, along with a slew of other honors in 2016. The blurbs on the back of the novel are quite impressive, especially the one from Maxine Hong Kingston, noted Chinese-American author and feminist, who calls the novel, "a magnificent feat of storytelling."
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr - This 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner is about a man and a woman living through WWII. In addition to it's Pulitzer, it was selected as a National Book Award finalist and was named one of the New York Times 10 best books of the year.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - This won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013. The plot concerns a boy who is gradually drawn into the criminal underworld of modern-day New York after losing his mother and being abandoned by his father.
The challenge this month will be the length of these novels. All three have won multiple accolades, and all three are absolute bricks. Hopefully, with the my winter holiday coming up at school, I will be able to squish in more reading time than usual. I hope these novels live up to the hype!
My month of reading fantasy novels has come to an end. I struggled a little bit this month with some work-related issues, so my reading took a bit of a hit. Even so, I will still have finished everything on my prospective list, plus two extra books when all is said and done. I'm still working on finishing up Throne of Glass, and I will come back and update this page once I do.
I learned during this month that I don't enjoy fantasy novels as much as I used to. While I liked most of the novels that I read this month, I wasn't overly excited to pick any of them up. I felt deeply connected to this genre as a kid, but now, I find myself annoyed by trite romances, a lack of complex characters, and an overabundance of gender issues. I suppose it's normal for a person's reading tastes to change over the years, but it's a little bittersweet to have left that little piece of me that loved magic and princesses behind.
The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
After Alice by Gregory Maguire
Stray by Elissa Sussman
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
Best of the Month: Stray
Worst of the Month: The Mark of the Dragonfly, Throne of Glass
Despite my lukewarm reaction to this month's theme, I'm not giving up on fantasy novels altogether. I might have to be more selective about which books I pick up, but I know I will return to literary worlds full of magic and wonder every now and then. For now, however, it's time to head into my last theme for the year - award-winning books. With a theme like that, I'm betting I'll find some new favorites.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
I admit that I first picked up Stray by Elissa Sussman based on the cover art alone. The illustration on the front is beautiful and haunting, and the small decorative touches throughout the text are tasteful and elegant. The design choices appealed to me so strongly that I purchased the book without considering any online reviews and without taking into account that its genre of young adult fantasy isn't one that appeals to me much these days. It was a foolhardy decision, to be sure, but in this case, it all worked out for the best. Stray is as compelling on the inside as it is on the outside.
The story is set in the realm of the Four Kingdoms, which are helpfully divided up into Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western segments. In this land, women are born with the ability to use magic and men are not. Instead of magic being an accepted part of everyday life, women are strictly managed and told to suppress their powers. All the lore of the Four Kingdoms focuses on the dangers of magic, and how it is an expression of the wickedness inside a woman's heart. Women of noble status within the kingdoms are sent away to boarding schools upon their first "occurrence" (an accidental release of magic usually happening in their early teenage years) and taught to stick rigidly to a path of obedience and self-denial. They must play the part of the delicate maiden to perfection, never, under any circumstances allow any of their magic to slip out, and follow the orders of their male advisor, who controls everything from their appearance and clothing to their choices for a future spouse. It is this universe, with its restrictive rules and rigid gender roles, that is undoubtedly the high point of the novel.
The protagonist of the story is a young princess named Aislynn, who loses her royal status at the beginning of the novel when her magical powers accidentally slip out in a moment of extreme emotional distress. Her punishment is to be "redirected," a process which involved stripping her of her title as princess and sending her far away to a different school to serve as a fairy godmother (i.e. servant) to another princess. Aislynn's failure to stay on her path of unwavering obedience to societal rules means that she now must serve as a cautionary example to another young royal. Fairy godmothers in this universe help princesses, as you'd expect, but they also serve to warn their charges of what will happen to them if they stray from what is expected.
Aislynn is assigned to Princess Linnea, a young girl with close familial ties to a wicked queen that most of the Four Kingdoms is afraid of. Linnea's relation to Queen Josetta makes her an outcast among the rest of the princesses at her school, so she develops a close relationship with Aislynn, who comes to care for her more and more each day despite the pain she feels for her own situation.
As time moves forward, Aislynn begins to learn more about with the Four Kingdoms are really like. Without the shield of royal status to protect her, she begins to notice things. Mysterious disappearances and questionable occurrences tempt her to stray from her new fairy godmother path, and when a real danger reveals itself one night, she is set upon a new course that will change her life forever.
I was not expecting an exploration of gender roles and sexism when I began reading this novel, and I was blown away when I realized that was what I was experiencing. The male characters in this universe have constructed a narrative that paints females as evil and dangerous, and this story is accepted without question by almost everyone. Women are forced to conceal a power that is literally straining to burst out of them in order to be considered as marriageable. They have to learn to be quiet, to deny themselves, and to follow orders to succeed. The levels of symbolism are astounding. I was reminded strongly of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and that's something that I did not expect to say about a princess novel. I loved the questions that this raised while I was reading, and I loved that it was so applicable to the issues young girls still face today in our society.
Unfortunately, Stray falls down a bit in other areas. These interesting questions about gender and sexism are underdeveloped, and Aislynn is only just beginning to grapple with them by the end of the novel. The story is left unfinished, to leave room for sequels I assume, so Aislynn's growth arc is woefully incomplete by the novel's final pages. There's also a cute, but tiresome, romance thrown in the mix because this is a young adult fantasy novel starring a princess. I wish that Sussman had hit the societal inequality harder.
However, despite its shortcomings, I give Stray credit for what it is hinting towards. This is a different sort of young adult fantasy, and I sincerely hope that future novels in the series delve deeper into the gender issues presented here. Right now there is a companion novel out, Burn, but it follows a different character and could be read standalone, from what I understand. I would actually be interested in reading a direct sequel, so I hope that one shows up eventually. Young readers need more books like this - that allow them to question the narratives and roles set out for us. Both girls and boys would benefit from dismantling gender expectations that make no sense and make so many people unhappy and afraid to be themselves. Stray is a step in the right direction, and an example of how literature has the power to help us examine our world through the guise of a fictional one.
Friday, November 25, 2016
After Alice by Gregory Maguire is a new spin on Lewis Carroll's classic Alice in Wonderland novels. Following in the footsteps of his Wicked novels, this story provides an alternate view of a classic tale. The plot centers around a young girl, named Ada, who mistakenly tumbles down the infamous rabbit hole while searching for Alice and ends up in Wonderland. The novel follows her adventure through the surreal and nonsensical world while she looks for Alice and for a way out.
Ada is a very different child from Alice. She has suffered from a crooked spine since birth, and must wear a painful metal brace to try and correct her posture. She's also described as lacking in physical beauty and social graces. These misfortunes mean that her prospects for future happiness are quite dim, since her appearance and manners make her unsuitable for marriage in Victorian England. She is different from Alice intellectually as well- she is a very rational and logical child. Where Alice is delicate, ethereal and imaginative, Ada is solid, clumsy and realistic. Alice seems to be a child with no worries beyond what games to play next. Ada is a child weighed down with problems and a deep sense of sadness. Indeed, Alice is described as being Ada's only friend, since her fantasy-prone mind allows her to overlook Ada's (and everyone else's) deficiencies.
As such, Ada feels honor-bound to try and rescue her only playmate. She reasons that Alice could easily get lost in all the fantasy of Wonderland and be unable to find her way back. With this (probably correct) thought in her mind, she sets off on a quest to reconnect with her and bring her back to England. However, the rules of Wonderland are flexible at best, and despite falling down the rabbit hole just moments after Alice, she always seems to be one step behind her. Along the way, she meets up with several familiar characters from the original novels, including the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, and the Queen of Hearts.
Interspersed with chapters about Ada's adventure are chapters narrating what's happening back in the real world with Lydia, Alice's older sister. Lydia, who was meant to be keeping an eye on her sister, fell asleep on the riverbank where Alice was playing before finding the rabbit hole, and thus feels mildly responsible for her sudden disappearance. However, she's not overly worried in the beginning, because Alice is described as disappearing all the time. As the days moves forward however, and the length of Alice's absence grows longer and longer, she becomes more and more concerned.
By using this strategy of splitting the chapters between the real world and Wonderland, Maguire achieves the effect of making the reader question how much of Wonderland is real. While reading the Lydia chapters, I was always slightly worried that she would stumble upon Alice and Ada's bodies somewhere, revealing that Wonderland was all some type of hallucination or view of the afterlife. Reminding the readers of the real world and the people left behind in it puts a bit of a dark edge on the story, and gives it a level of complexity that the original novels by Carroll didn't dabble in. While I love the original Alice novels for their wonder and simplicity, I enjoyed looking at the story from a different, darker angle too.
One aspect of After Alice that I wasn't a big fan of initially was the language. Maguire's vocabulary choices throughout the novel feel needlessly difficult. There were several words I didn't know the meaning of (and that's really saying something for me), and I had to struggle with using context clues until I got used to the writing style. Coming off of reading the original Alice novels first, so as to better catch Maguire's references, the difference was extremely jarring. This book is set in the same universe as Carroll's works, but it most assuredly does not speak in the same language. It almost felt a bit arrogant, like Maguire was trying to include every obscure word he knew on purpose to look impressive. Looking at some online reviews of the novel, I can see that the language turned off many, many readers and caused them to give up on the book almost immediately.
Indeed, the barrier to entry into the novel is high, but a reader who is able to muddle through the language until they become used to it will be rewarded. The references to the original novels are clever, Ada's growth arc is inspiring and rewarding, and the ending leaves some interesting questions to turn over in your mind. Maguire's spin on Wonderland feels right, even if the vocabulary doesn't match, and his storytelling provides a new way to look at an old story. I ended up really enjoying this one by the end, but readers should know that they have to wade through some difficult text before getting drawn in. It was worth it, for me.
Sunday, November 20, 2016
After reading Alice in Wonderland, I decided to finish up the adventure by reading the sequel to the novel, Through the Looking Glass. In this installment, Alice once again experiences a vivid and unusual dream, but instead of tumbling down the rabbit hole to Wonderland, she travels to the world that lies through the looking glass. The Looking Glass World is just as confusing and nonsensical as Wonderland, but with the added quirk of everything working backwards (it IS a mirror-world, after all). Chess also plays a big role in this novel, as the setting resembles a chessboard and Alice interacts with many of the pieces throughout the story.
There is a bit more of a plot in Through the Looking Glass than there was in its predecessor. Alice winds up on a quest to become a queen (of the chessboard). She is given a list of specific movements she has to make to reach her goal, and the bulk of the story involves her getting into curious adventures along her journey. I'd imagine that a lot of very clever chess references are buried in the story, but as I'm not a chess player, I wasn't able to catch them.
This novel introduces us to more classic characters, most notably, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, who are just as ornery and silly as the Disney adaptation portrayed. There is also a lot of poetry woven throughout the story that has become famous in its own right, like "Jabberwocky" and "The Walrus and the Carpenter." Humpty Dumpty even makes a guest appearance. It's a fun little read, and is a worthy sequel to the original novel.
Through the Looking Glass is a fun continuation of the silliness of Alice in Wonderland. While the first book in the series is probably my favorite, this one is definitely worth your time. There's something very special about the way Lewis Carrol is able to create fantasy, and the classic illustrations by John Tenniel are the perfect accompaniment to the storytelling. While simple stories, these are fantasy at its finest, and any fan of this genre should have the Alice's adventures in their personal library.
Monday, November 14, 2016
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
For my next foray into the fantasy genre, I decided to add in a classic. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a novel that has had a tremendous impact on our culture. This book, and it's companion, Through the Looking Glass, are still referenced constantly in movies, books, and television shows (the most recent that I came across being HBO's new show, Westworld). With Gregory Maguire's After Alice coming up next on my reading list, I decided to pick up the original first, so that I could better catch the references in Maguire's re-imagining later.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland follows the titular Alice as she tumbles down a rabbit hole into a curious world of fantasy. Nothing makes sense in Wonderland - the absurd becomes the standard as Alice wanders from one place to another, changing sizes, attending a mad tea party, talking to a disappearing cat and playing croquet with the Queen of Hearts. There isn't really a plot to speak of throughout the text, rather, this is an observation of a crazy adventure that all turns out to be a very elaborate dream in the end.
On the surface, a novel without a plot where nothing makes sense sounds like it would be a disaster. On the contrary, however, Alice is a masterpiece. The humor and imagination are outstanding, and the illustrations accompanying the text are delightful. You honestly feel like you are somewhere else when you are reading about Wonderland. I found myself laughing out loud in several sections, which isn't something I normally do while reading.
The amount of characters that have stuck around in our culture from this novel is nuts. Alice, the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts were all created here. Just saying these names conjures up images and personalities in everyone's minds, whether they have actually read the novel or not. That's quite an impressive feat for a children's book written in 1866.
This is a short little novel, and it can be read straight through in about an hour and a half. The language is simple and sweet. Children today could read this one with no problem, which is not something I can say of all young adult classics. Adults will find subtle humor throughout that younger readers won't catch. There's really something for everyone here. If you've never gone down the rabbit hole yourself, I highly recommend the trip.
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
The Mark of the Dragonfly is a middle grades fantasy novel that tells the story of a young, orphaned girl named Piper. Piper lives in what is known as a "scrap town" in the land of Solace. She ekes out a living scavenging in the meteor fields - an area that is regularly pummeled by meteors containing old, broken objects from other worlds. She has a talent for fixing mechanical pieces, so she is able to provide for herself by finding broken items, fixing them up, and selling them at her market.
After a particularly bad meteor storm, Piper witnesses a caravan being destroyed by falling debris. In the wreckage, she makes an unusual discovery - an unconscious girl with a curious symbol tattooed on her arm. Piper recognizes the mark right away as the mark of the dragonfly. It means that this mysterious girl is under the protection of a neighboring king. If Piper can return the girl to her kingdom, she might earn a hefty reward and save herself from a life of poverty.
The unconscious girl quickly revives and identifies herself as Anna. She has lost most of her memory and has no idea where she comes from, but it is immediately apparent that she is someone important when a few hours after her rescue, a wealthy-looking man attacks Piper and tries to carry Anna off. Suddenly on the run, Piper and Anna hop on board a supply train headed towards the Dragonfly Territories to try and escape the strange man and get Anna back to where she belongs. A fantasy adventure ensues as Piper and Anna face grave danger, make new friends, and discover some very important things about themselves.
This was a cute novel, and one that I think younger readers will enjoy. For me, it lacked crossover appeal for adult readers. It was a bit too young, and the inevitable romance that comes into play in the last section of the novel between Piper and another character, Gee, was underdeveloped and overly sentimental. For the genre it belongs to, however, this was an entertaining read, and I will certainly recommend it to some of my fantasy-loving kiddos.
Unfortunately for my reading experience, I was able to guess the big twist at the ending about 70 pages into the book. I don't think that an average, young reader would figure it out, but a grownup reader can see it coming a mile away. This made reading the rest of the novel a slog. In a sea of middle grades fantasy, this was was sweet, but it doesn't stand out, and as a result, I don't have a whole lot to say about it.
In the established tradition of fantasy novels, The Mark of the Dragonfly is the start of a series. The second book, The Secrets of Solace is already out, but I wasn't impressed enough with Dragonfly to continue on with it. This was a fun read, but that's about all.
Sunday, November 6, 2016
In the month of November, I'm going to read a genre of books that I used to love when I was younger, but haven't read much of lately: fantasy novels!
As a kid, princesses, magic, and fairy tales were most definitely my jam. I loved nothing more than to get lost in an impossible world. However, as I got older, my interests drifted more into realistic fiction. Aside from the Harry Potter books and Game of Thrones, I haven't read much fantasy as an adult. So, I decided to return to my former favorite in the month of November and rediscover what I used to love about the genre.
Here's the reading list for the month:
The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson - I don't know much about this book. I picked it up at our school book fair after I saw our media specialist carrying it around. That's usually a decent indication that a book is worth checking out. The back of the book says that this is about a girl who must go on a dangerous and slightly magical journey to return a mysterious girl to the king's protection. Sounds pretty much standard for a young adult fantasy.
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas - This novel is really popular on the young adult book blogs. It's way past time that I read it for myself. This one is about an assassin trying to win her freedom from prison, along with the title of King's Champion.
After Alice by Gregory Maguire - I've read most of Maguire's other works (my favorite being Wicked), so I want to read his dark take on Alice in Wonderland too.
Stray by Elissa Sussman - I admit that I picked this book up off the shelf at Barnes and Noble based on the beautiful cover design alone. It's about a princess trying to follow a traditional path through life, but struggling to control her magic.
I'm definitely interested to see if I still enjoy fantasy as much as a did as a teenager. I worry about struggling to find a true emotional connection to these works, as I find that many fantasy novels are plot-driven rather than character-driven. I'm definitely a fan of character-driven works at this point in my life, but I'm going to give this month a fair shot. It's time to make some magic!
Every Falling Star falls into an in-between place in my reading theme months. I read this during the very end of October through the very beginning of November, and it doesn't quite go into either category for those months. I bought this memoir of a boy's escape from North Korea for my classroom, and wanted to read it right away in order to make recommendations for my students. I don't read a whole lot of young adult non-fiction, so this was a nice change of genre for me.
The novel tells the true story of Sungju Lee, a young North Korean boy trying to grow up under his country's strict regime. When his father is exiled from the military to a poor rural town, Sungju goes from having a relatively comfortable existence in Pyongyang to living in abject poverty. All of a sudden, instead of watching television and attending Taekwondo classes, he is struggling to get enough to eat and watching his parents sink further and further into depression.
Eventually, Sunju's parents disappear. First his father, and later, his mother, leave their home in search of food and never come back. Now completely alone, Sungju starts a street gang and begins stealing and fighting to survive. He travels with his new "brothers" around the country, always searching for a better market to steal from or a new territory to rule. Along the way, he forms a very strong bond with the other kids in his gang, and they craft a set of rules promising to stick together and look out for one another. They becomes a very close knit family.
Sungju's story has a happy ending. After several years go by, he is able to reconnect with some relatives and escape to South Korea. He goes on to attend college and dedicates his life to helping other North Koreans escape. In fleeing his homeland, he is forced to leave his brothers behind, a sacrifice that troubles him to this day. In the front pages of the novel, he explains that he uses their real names throughout Every Falling Star in the hopes that one of them will read it one day and get it touch with him. The book is dedicated to them.
This book gives young readers an interesting look at what really goes on in North Korea, a country legendary for its bizarre and abusive leadership. However, it isn't as intriguing or emotional as you'd expect. I found the novel to be slow-moving and frequently boring. I feel terrible for thinking that, because this is a memoir of a person who has suffered deeply and overcome a lot in his life, but that was truly how I felt while reading. I think that a lot of darker details had to have been left out of the story in an effort to make this "appropriate" for a younger audience. The novel is undoubtedly weaker for it, because it lacks an emotional punch to pull in its readers. In reviewing my experience with this book, I'm finding that I just don't have a lot to say about it.
Every Falling Star was okay in the end. I enjoyed learning more about North Korea and I'm glad that Sungju Lee was able to get out and share his story with the world. He is a very brave and hardworking person, and these qualities have allowed him to break free from the circumstances he was born into and become a success. However, the overall pace of his memoir was slow and it lacked emotional depth at times. This will appeal to sensitive and mature young adult readers with an interest in history, but I definitely would not recommend this to a reluctant or struggling reader because of the pacing issues.