Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reading Reflection: 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
April: Nonfiction
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.

It Starts With Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig

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

December 2016 Wrap Up

Image from

 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.

Books Read:
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 by Anthony Doerr

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

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S.King

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

Reading Resolutions: 2017 Edition!

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.

Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017

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

1. A book recommended by a librarian The Summer I Saved the 65 Days by Michele Weber Hurwitz
2. A book that's been on your TBR list for way too long Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
3. A book of letters Letters From The Looney Bin by Thatcher C. Nalley
4. An audio book Lock In by John Scalzi
5. A book by a person of color Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
6. A book with one of the four seasons in the title The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
7. A book that is a story within a story Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman
8. A book with multiple authors Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
9. An espionage thriller The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
10. A book with a cat on the cover Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
11. A book by an author who uses a pseudonym The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
12. A bestseller from a genre you don't normally read Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
13. A book by or about a person who has a disability Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
14. A book involving travel Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
15. A book with a subtitle Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt
16. A book published in 2017 History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
17. A book involving a mythical creature Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet
18. A book you've read before that never fails to make you smile Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling; Illustrated by Jim Kay
19. A book about food The Omnivore's Dilemma: Young Reader's Edition by Michael Pollan
20. A book with career advice Rigorous Reading by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher
21. A book from a nonhuman perspective  Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
22. A steampunk novel The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
23. A book with a red spine Trouble by Non Pratt
24. A book set in the wilderness The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King
25. A book you loved as a child Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling; Illustrated by Jim Kay
26. A book by an author from a country you never visited Germinal by Émile Zola
27. A book with a title that's a character's name King Lear by William Shakespeare
28. A novel set during wartime Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
29. A book with an unreliable narrator Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
30. A book with pictures Hollow City by Ransom Riggs
31. A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina
32. A book about an interesting woman The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
33. A book set in two different time periods Redshirts by John Scalzi
34. A book with a month or day of the week in the title Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
35. A book set in a hotel A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
36. A book written by someone you admire Dear White America by Tim Wise
37. A book that's becoming a movie in 2017 The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
38. A book set around a holiday other than Christmas Labor Day by Joyce Maynard
39. The first book in a series you haven't read before Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
40. A book you bought on a trip The Girls by Emma Cline

*Bonus Categories* - To be completed if the original 40 are completed before the year is out!

41. A book recommended by an author you love Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
42. A bestseller from 2016 The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
43. A book with a family-member term in the title The Good Sister by Jamie Kain
44. A book that takes place over a character's lifespan The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
45. A book about an immigrant or a refugee Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
46. A book from a genre/subgenre that you've never heard of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
47. A book with an eccentric character Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
48. A book that's more than 800 pages Dune by Frank Herbert
49. A book you got from a used book sale Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
50. A book that's been mentioned in another book Dracula by Bram Stoker
51. A book about a difficult topic Colorblind by Tim Wise
52. A book based on mythology American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

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 SScott
shows the class

of a burned, naked girl
running, crying
down a dirt road

of people climbing, screaming,
desperate to get on
the last helicopter
out of Saigon

of skeletal refugees,
crammed aboard a
sinking fishing boat,
reaching up to the heavens
for help

of mound of combat boots
abandoned by soldiers
of the losing side.

She's telling the class 
where I'm from.

She should have shown
something about
papayas and Tet.

No one would believe me
but at times
I would choose
wartime in Saigon
peacetime 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

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

Back to the Classics 2017 - Sign Up Post

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)
4A 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.

December Reading List: Award-Winning Novels

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!

November 2016 Wrap Up

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.

Books Read
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.