Tuesday, May 30, 2017

May 2017 Reading Wrap Up

May was a very successful reading month for me. Thanks to being sick in bed for a couple of weeks, I crossed a whole lot of books off my challenge lists. This cough may be killing my soul, but at least it gave me the gift of time to read. Here's the breakdown:

1. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (4/5 stars)
  • Back to the Classics: A romance classic
  • Classics Club: #78 on my list
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

2. Tuesdays with Morrie (4/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: a book with a month or day of the week in the title

3. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (4/5 stars)
  • Classics Club: #48 on my list
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

4. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (4/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A bestseller from a genre you don't normally read

5. Rigorous Reading by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher (2/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with career advice
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

6. Trouble by Non Pratt  (3/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with a red spine
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (5/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book you loved as a child
  • Mount TBR: previously owned 

  • Popsugar Challenge: A book set in the wilderness
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with a main character that's a different ethnicity than you
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

My current challenge status is:

I have read 40 books so far in 2017!

My favorite reads of the month were Rebecca and Born a Crime, which is funny because these two books couldn't be more different from each other. Rebecca was a twisty Victorian Gothic-style mystery, while Born a Crime was the true story of Trevor Noah's childhood in South Africa. What both books did share, however, were compelling stories that made a deep impression on me as a reader.

My least favorite read of the month was Rigorous Reading, a teacher book that I found to be too general to be truly useful to me.

Since I'm on summer break now, I hope to be able to read more books than usual in June. I'm planning on lots of lazy mornings, cups of tea, and stacks of books for the next few weeks!

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

With a few days left in May, I decided to squeeze one more Popsugar Challenge book into the month. Looking over what categories were left, I decided to tackle the "book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you" prompt. I've had Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina sitting on my shelf for years now, so I decided to give this young adult novel featuring a Latina protagonist a try.

The novels focuses on high school sophomore Piddy Sanchez. She lives with her mother in Queens, New York. Her father isn't a part of her life, and although she asks her mother about him from time to time, she's never gotten many details aside from the fact that he was from the Dominican Republic and that he ran off before she was born. When the stairs in their apartment building collapse under her mother's feet one day, she decides to move with Piddy to a nicer place. While they don't go far, the move means that Piddy has to change schools, and that's when the trouble starts.

Her new high school turns out to be a rather rough place, and Piddy has trouble making friends. She doesn't fit in with the other Spanish kids, since she has light skin, so she eventually aligns herself with the other school misfits. While she eventually has kids that she talks to during the day, nothing compares to the friends she left behind at her old apartment and school. After a few weeks have passed, someone gives Piddy an alarming message - she's somehow managed to catch the attention of another student named Yaqui Delgado, and Yaqui wants to kick her ass.

At first, Piddy is confused. She doesn't share any classes with Yaqui. She has never spoken to her. She doesn't even know what she looks like. She learns soon enough, however, as Yaqui and her friends start bullying her in the hallways. Anxious and scared, Piddy, who has always been a top student, stops doing her schoolwork and even starts cutting class in an effort to turn herself invisible and escape Yaqui's attention. Nothing she does works however, and Yaqui ends up jumping her after school one evening. Even worse, the whole thing was recorded on someone's phone and the attack is posted online. Scared and humiliated, Yaqui is now at a crossroads. Should she try to continue on and hide what happened as best as she can, or should she reach out to her mother and her school for help?

Yaqui Delgado won the Pura Belpré Author Award, which is given to authors that celebrate the Latino experience in literature. This novel certainly did that, with Piddy's mother and aunt especially providing lots of cultural references throughout the story. Latin music, food, and language are infused into the plot in a way that feels authentic. At the same time, this novel is still relatable to readers of any ethnicity that pick it up. It's about a kid dealing with a bully, and that, unfortunately, is something that many different kinds of students struggle with in real life. I appreciated that this was a novel starring Latin characters that wasn't necessarily about being Latin. We need more diversity in young adult literature, and books like this are a step in the right direction.

I did enjoy the novel overall, but a few things about it irked me. Mainly, the plot felt unfocused. The conflict between Piddy and Yaqui felt very manufactured, especially since there was never a real reason given for all the harassment. It is mentioned once that Yaqui's boyfriend may have catcalled in Piddy's direction one time and that Yaqui doesn't like the way Piddy "shakes her ass" when she walks. I found it hard to believe that Yaqui would go to the trouble to turn that into a crusade against a girl she didn't know at all and had no contact with throughout the school day. We are never shown Yaqui's perspective or given any background information on her either, leaving her a stereotypical bully character. The times where Yaqui actually messed with Piddy were few and far between too. There were stretches of the novel where it felt like not very much was happening. I wish there has been a stronger story in place to keep everything moving.

The conflict with Yaqui wasn't the only aspect of the story that felt a bit off. Piddy is on a halfhearted quest to find out more information about her father, which doesn't really go anywhere. Her mother ends up filling in some of the blanks for her, but she doesn't do anything with the information. She also has a brief romance with a boy from her old apartment building named Joey that feels rushed and underdeveloped. This was meant to be a novel about how Piddy grows and matures through her sophomore year, but everything is left so hazy that I wasn't able to get a clear picture of exactly how she has changed by the end of the story.

Without a strong plot to keep things interesting, what saved this novel from being boring for me was how realistic it felt. In real life, students are bullied, families aren't perfect, kids make mistakes, and things aren't always resolved neatly. That's how Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass feels. It's an honest look at the private dramas that students deal with every day. While I feel like there were some missed opportunities to flesh out Piddy's story a bit more, this novel is still a solid read, especially if you are interested in books with diverse characters.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you) 35/40
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 31/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 40

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

“The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted.”

I've been laid up with a cough for the past few weeks. Frustratingly, it seems to be getting worse instead of better. In an effort to rest and let my throat heal, I tucked myself into bed today and started in on The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King. I was hoping to read for a bit before drifting off into a restorative (hopefully) sleep, but alas, it was not to be. The darn cough refused to let me rest. Luckily, however, this book had me totally absorbed, and I spent a lazy half of a day reading the whole thing.

The novel follows nine-year-old Trisha McFarland, who embarks on a short hiking trip on a segment of the Appalachian Trail with her mother and brother at the beginning of the story. Frustrated with the constant bickering between her mother and brother, she leaves the trail to use the bathroom and gets hopelessly lost trying to make her way back. Unable to retrace her steps back to her family, she unwittingly moves deeper and deeper into the woods. Soon, she has wandered so far away from where she started that the rescue teams eventually tasked with finding her aren't searching anywhere near where she has gotten to. Trisha has to rely on her own common sense and ingenuity to make her way back to civilization.

Her journey is far from easy. All she has with her are the meager contents of her backpack - a bagged lunch, a bottle of soda, a bottle of water, a poncho, and her Walkman cassette player/radio (it's the 90s). To ease her mind as she travels, she tunes into Boston Red Sox games, hoping to catch mentions of her favorite player, relief pitcher Tom Gordon. When the broadcasts of the games begin to fade, she starts to hallucinate that she is traveling with Tom himself, and he offers occasional advice and a listening ear as she babbles her problems and fears to him. She has to deal with endless bug attacks, oppressive heat, illness, injuries, and dwindling food and water supplies. Even more terrifying than these problems, however, is the feeling she has that a creature is stalking her through the woods, watching her every move and waiting to claim her for its own.

Rather than having regular chapter numbers, the book is divided into innings. This clever strategy creates an apt metaphor between Trisha's struggle to survive and an exciting baseball game. Some innings see her on top and making great decisions. In other innings, she falls back. By the end of the story, it's the bottom of the ninth and the story has reached a save situation. Will Trisha triumph like her hero Tom Gordan and close the game in her favor, or will nature hit a home run and defeat her?

This was a great survival story, and not exactly what I was expecting from a Stephen King novel. It was scary, but not in the way of stories like The Shining or It. It wasn't like a horror movie, it was very realistic. Nature, as I learned, is scary enough on its own; it doesn't need the addition of monsters or supernatural events. Trisha was written very well. She was sympathetic and brave - an easy character to like. I was rooting for her throughout the story, hoping feverishly that she'd make it out of the woods. Her hallucinations were well done as well, with Tom Gordon showing up occasionally to signal the decline of Trisha's health.

One element of the story that wasn't so enjoyable for me were the descriptions of the Red Sox games that Trisha listens to during her time in the woods. I am not a baseball fan, so I didn't understand some of the language that went on in these sections. I was a bit bored during those parts and just wanted to get back to the story. However, these games were important tethers to reality for Trisha's character, so I understand their inclusion. They aren't too long or frequent, so it was ultimately fine. Understanding baseball is not a prerequisite for enjoying this novel, but it probably would have helped me to know the terminology a bit better.

If I had to be stuck in bed with a cough, this wasn't a bad way to spend the day. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is a highly engaging story with a likable heroine and a fast-paced plot. I would definitely recommend this one to anyone looking for a quick and entertaining summer read.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book set in the wilderness) 34/40

Total Books Read in 2017: 39

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

One of my Popsugar Challenge categories this year was to reread a book that I loved as a child. Since I was a kid that was never without a book in my hand, I had a whole ton of choices for this one. What narrowed it down for me was the fact that I got the new, illustrated version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for Christmas, and after rereading the first book in the series last month, I was keen to go on and reread the second book too.

I loved all of the Harry Potter books as a kid. I was around twelve years old when I discovered the series. The first two books were out at that point, and I read them both in just a couple of days. Since then, I've been a huge fan of the Potterverse. I talked about my affection for these books in more detail in my Sorcerer's Stone review, so I won't repeat myself too much here. Rest assured though, this book was most definitely one that I loved as a child.

The Chamber of Secrets is the story of Harry's second year at Hogwarts. Soon after the start of the new term, a series of mysterious attacks leave several students petrified. Rumors about a hidden area of the castle called the Chamber of Secrets begin to fly, and fear of the monster that supposedly lives inside of it spreads throughout the school. Of course, Harry winds up in the center of the action. He begins to hear a voice in the castle walls that no one else can hear and becomes determined to find the truth about what is going on. His mission leads him through several harrowing situations that include battling gigantic spiders and fighting the shadow of Lord Voldemort himself.

My absolute favorite thing about the novel is Gilderoy Lockheart, the pompous and annoying new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. This celebrity in the wizarding world spends his time trying to make the front pages of magazines and impress everyone with his dashing good looks. He's written several books detailing his heroic exploits, but as the students at Hogwarts soon learn, his actual skill level with magic is suspiciously low. There's more to this character than meets the eye, and watching him strut around the school trying to impress everyone is quite entertaining. Rowling writes this character to perfection. He's so arrogant it's incredible, and all of the "wisdom" he tries to impart to Harry is hilarious. I always laugh out loud when he tells Harry that, "fame is a fickle friend" and "celebrity is as celebrity does." Watching him annoy all of the other teachers is quite amusing too, because I know quite a few teachers in real life who act quite similar to Lockheart, and the reactions of the other professors to him is spot-on.

Other high points in this novel include learning more about Hagrid's background, meeting Fawkes, Dumbledore's pet phoenix, and the Snape's performance in the short-lived (and hilarious) dueling club. Like the first book in the series, the world-building is excellent and it's easy to get lost in the story. I rarely reread books, but I've read all the books in this series several times and I am always entertained.  Of course, Jim Kay's illustrations in this version are stunning and whimsical. They add a real sense of artistry and depth to the pages. It's nicer reading these versions with pictures because it lends a real "old storybook" feeling to the experience. I'm so excited to see what he does with the rest of the series.

This is the last Potter book before the deeper story of the battle against Voldemort picks up. It's a bit lighter in tone and more kid-friendly than the books that come after. Its story is a bit more self-contained as well; the events from this one don't bleed over into the rest of the series as much as the other books do. For these reasons, some readers describe this story as one of the weaker ones. I, however, have a soft spot for it. It's a fantastic adventure with some great character building. I like that it's not as heavy as the rest of the series. Reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is just plain fun, which makes it an excellent nostalgia trip for me. 

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book that you loved as a child) 33/40
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 30/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 38

Monday, May 22, 2017

Trouble by Non Pratt

One the the stranger Popsugar Challenge categories this year was to read "a book with a red spine." As I looked through my shelves, I realized that I actually had quite a few books that would have fit the bill. I decided to go with the brightest red spine out of the bunch, which led me to Trouble by Non Pratt.

Trouble is a young adult novel focusing on two high school students going through difficult times. The narration is split fairly evenly between both characters, so the reader becomes very familiar with both of their perspectives. The first character, Hannah Shepard, is a fifteen year old girl who has just found out that she is pregnant. Her pregnancy disrupts everything in her life, from her reputation to her relationships with her family and friends. Worse, the identity of the father is a terrible secret that she is afraid to reveal to anyone else. It doesn't take long for hurtful rumors and nasty comments to begin flying in her direction as news of her condition spreads. As the weeks wear on, she must learn to deal with not only her rapidly changing body and her impending motherhood, but the social consequences of being a pregnant teenager.

The second protagonist, Aaron Tyler, is a transfer student to Hannah's school. His whole family picked up and moved into town for a fresh start after a traumatic event. What the event was is not revealed until the end of the novel, but the effect it has had on Aaron is quite profound. He struggles to engage emotionally with others and keeps everyone, including his closest friends and family, at arm's length. He mentally punishes himself for what happened and feels empty most of the time. He is suffering greatly, but keeps his feelings bottled up inside.

When Hannah and Aaron meet, it's as if fate has drawn them together. Hannah desperately needs someone to be her friend. Aaron desperately needs someone to care for. They become fast friends, and before long, Aaron offers to pretend to be the father of Hannah's baby. This arrangement benefits them both; it allows Aaron to do something that he feels is useful and eases some of the pressure and scrutiny that Hannah has been enduring. They live inside of their lie and protect each other for most of Hannah's pregnancy. However, this unorthodox arrangement can't possibly last forever. As the truth about Hannah's baby and Aaron's past begin to come out, the pair must use their newfound strength to set things right and find a way to be comfortable in their own skins.

One of Trouble's greatest strengths is how straightforward it is. Nothing is sugar-coated here. Profanity and sexual language are used liberally throughout the story, and Hannah's sexual encounters are described in unflinching detail. This choice in language definitely helps bring the characters and situations to life, even if it is a little uncomfortable. The novel feels gritty and ugly in places, and that makes it more realistic. Teen pregnancy is an difficult topic, but Pratt doesn't shy away from the specifics of it. The story is better as a result. I zoomed through reading this on pretty quickly, because I was totally engaged in the plot and wanted to see what happened.

Where the novel failed a bit for me was in Hannah's character. She was very difficult to like. Her mind was constantly on alcohol and sex, to the point where it seemed over the top. I'm no stranger to the idea that teenagers enjoy drinking and having sex, but it was almost all that Hannah thought about. Her fixation on these topics seemed to indicate a more serious self esteem or impulse control issue that Pratt didn't really elaborate on. Her growth as a character didn't feel genuine either. Circumstances prevented her from engaging in some destructive behaviors, but I never got the sense that she was making changes because she wanted to make them. At the beginning of the novel she hangs out with an awful, odious group of friends, drinks excessively, and has casual sex with multiple partners. By the end of the novel she isn't doing these things anymore, but that was as a result of her pregnancy. At no point that I can remember did she really reflect on her actions or make conscious decisions to change. In contrast, Aaron's growth arc felt much more developed and genuine. He was introspective enough to identify why he was hurting and explore ways of healing himself. He was a character to root for, even in the moments where he made poor choices.

Overall, I did enjoy Trouble for its honest treatment of a tough topic and for its interesting and engaging plot. The power of supportive friendships is given center stage in this novel and it was nice to see a non-romantic relationship between a boy and a girl transforming the characters' lives. In caring for someone else, Aaron gradually learns to open up and begin healing. In being cared for in a truly selfless way, Hannah begins to change some of the personal issues she struggles with that led her to become pregnant in the first place. Both characters end up in better places because they look out for each other, which is a lesson that we should all take notice of. While I wouldn't necessarily recommend this to a younger audience, older teens and adults will find much food for thought in these pages.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book with a red spine) 32/40
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 29/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 37

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Rigorous Reading by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher

 One of my Popsugar categories this year was to read a book with career advice. While I know that some people probably struggled to find a book they wanted to read for this one, I had no problem at all. I have a huge plastic bin full of teacher books that I haven't gotten a chance to read yet stored neatly in my closet. This is a category of books that I tend to compulsively buy from. I'm always looking for ways to improve my classroom, and education catalogues get put in my school mailbox all the time. I end up buying way more teacher books than I have time to read, so it was no trouble to pull one of those out. In thinking about what I want to improve on in my classroom next year, I went with Rigorous Reading by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher. Strap in, because it's about to get very teacher-y in here.

Rigorous Reading was written to help teachers engage their students in complex text. The book is organized around five access points for teachers. Each point promises to help teachers build student comprehension of difficult reading passages. The access points discussed are:
  1. Purpose and Modeling
  2. Close and Scaffolded Reading Instruction
  3. Collaborative Conversations
  4. An Independent Reading Staircase
  5. Demonstrating Understanding and Assessing Performance
Each access point has its own chapter, in which the authors define the concept, go into detail about its connection to reading comprehension, give strategies for its implementation in the classroom, and provide examples of how other teachers utilize the concepts with their own students. Included alongside the written information are example handouts and videos of teachers modeling different practices in their classrooms, accessible through QR codes printed right near the relevant sections of text. About half of the total length in the book is devoted to a professional development guide for teachers who plan to train school staff on the Rigorous Reading access points.

I had mixed feelings about this book. On the positive side, I did enjoy the information about collaborative structures and how to assess student performance. I know that one of my weak spots as a teacher is trying to do too much and control everything in the classroom. I want to provide more collaborative activities for my students and keep a closer eye on their individual progress and there was some solid information on how to structure this type of work in the text. I also enjoyed the videos. It was really easy to scan the QR codes with my phone and instantly watch an example of what the text was talking about.

What I didn't enjoy as much was the lack of depth in each chapter. Each section was pretty short, and only skimmed the surface of the concepts it was presenting. Most of the information was so generic that I doubt I'm going to remember a lot of it once some time has passed. Instead of devoting the entire second half of the book to instructions for professional development activities, I with that Frey and Fisher could have included some sample lessons or more explicit instructions for developing the processes they outline in the first half. The information they present is correct and the access points make sense, but I don't think there were enough specifics included to make this a resource I will return to while I'm lesson planning.

This is not necessarily a book I would recommend to other teachers looking to improve their professional practice, with one exception. Teachers who are new to the craft will find the ideas that fill the pages of Rigorous Reading useful. However, if you are a seasoned teacher, then you probably already know most of the points that Frey and Fisher explain, and would do better to look in other resources for a more thorough look at how to teach rigorous texts to students.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book with career advice) 31/40
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 28/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 36

Monday, May 15, 2017

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

One of my Popsugar Challenges this year was to read a book from a genre that I don't normally read. I try to read pretty widely, so there really aren't too many genres I never read from, but the biography/memoir category definitely fits the bill. I've only read a small handful of these over the course of my adult reading life, so I figured this was a good place to pull a book from. I'd heard very good things about comedian/host of The Daily Show Trevor Noah's memoirs, so I decided to give his bestseller, Born a Crime, a try.

Born a Crime is structured as a series of personal essays in roughly chronological order that tell the story of Noah's boyhood in South Africa. The title refers to the fact that he was born from a black South African mother and a white Swiss father, which was illegal during the time he was conceived under apartheid law. As such, his early life consisted of a lot of secrecy, moving around, and lying about his parentage in order to avoid the harsh penalties of producing a mixed child, which included serious jail time and losing parental rights.

When Nelson Mandela became president and apartheid law was abolished, Noah, now around six years old, faced different challenges. His existence was no longer evidence of a crime, but he was still a social outcast because he did not belong to any of the established groups in his school or neighborhood. South Africa remained very racially divided, and he didn't fit any of the accepted categories of black, white, colored, Indian, or Chinese. This struggle to find his place in the world occupies many of the essays in the collection, and Noah comments very intelligently on the insidious nature of colonialism, racism, and apartheid in South Africa and how it has had far-reaching effects on the population.

Flowing through these rather serious observations of social inequality are a very engaging collection of anecdotes about Noah's childhood and adolescence. Some of the stories are emotional and serious, while others are hilarious. All of them carry Noah's personal wit and charm. He is a natural storyteller, and the essays he writes feel more like sitting around having a comfortable conversation with a friend rather than reading a book. A few of my personal favorites involved the time he pooped in his living room and the fallout that ensued (trust me, it spiraled out of control quickly), and the story about performing as a DJ at a school with a friend named Hitler. Noah was quite the troublemaker growing up, and the scrapes he gets into are very entertaining to read.

Many of the essays center around his mother, who was the most important influence in Noah's life. She was quite an unusual and strong woman. She raised her children essentially alone and defied many of the expectations of her gender in a time and place where it was dangerous to stand out. Noah's love and respect for her shines out from every page, even throughout the stories where he's getting into trouble or struggling to understand her choices. The final essay in the collection, in which he details the domestic violence the family suffered with his mother's second husband, is especially powerful and is a fitting way to end the novel.

Born a Crime was a really pleasant surprise that I'm glad I took a chance on. You do not have to be a fan of The Daily Show to enjoy reading these memoirs, and I would encourage everyone to pick it up just for the commentary on race alone. I learned a lot about South Africa reading this that I didn't know before, and learning it through the lens of a young man who was actually there and in a unique situation within all of its tangled laws and social rules was fascinating. This is truly and interesting and inspiring read.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a bestseller from a genre you don't normally read) 30/40

Total Books Read in 2017: 35

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

“A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around... Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind... And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.” 

I first learned about Roadside Picnic from my husband. When he described the book to me, I was definitely intrigued, not only for the interesting plot, but also because it was written by two brothers from Russia during the Soviet era. They had to fight through a lot of rounds of censorship to get it published at all during the 70s.. The version I read was their original, non-censored version, released in the 90s. It is considered a science fiction classic, although definitely one of the lesser known ones (at least the the United States). 

The novel is set in a post-alien visitation earth. Thirty years prior the the novel's opening, aliens visited six locations on the earth's surface. Their visit was not witnessed by any humans; they left after a few days and never returned. The debris they left behind, however, had wide ranging effects on the planet. The mysterious artifacts scattered across these visitation "zones" attracted scientists, tourists, and profiteers to the areas and everyone is looking to make a new discovery or some cash.

The Zones, however, are full of unexplainable horrors. Strange gravitational irregularities, deadly plant growth, and invisible traps litter the area. Venturing inside to search for alien objects is incredibly dangerous, which is why people are willing to pay high prices for anything found there. Accordingly, a thriving black market has sprung up around items from the Zones. The main protagonist of the story, Red Schuhart, is a stalker- one of those men who sneak into the Zones to procure items to sell. Most of the novel follows him as he explores the Zones, locates artifacts, and attempts to deal with the extraordinary phenomena he witnesses.

Roadside Picnic was a great novel, but it didn't really have a single driving storyline. It was more of an exploration of what the discovery of other intelligent life in the universe does to our world. The fact that aliens came, went, and took no notice of us was enough to offend people and birth hundreds of conspiracy theories. However, having to deal with the fallout of all their scattered trash is what causes the most damage to the world. Science can make no sense of the objects they find. They are able to modify some of them to be useful to humanity, but most of them remain a complete mystery. The dangerous plant life that springs up in the aliens' wake is deadly, and the other odd phenomena that occurs there means that the areas have to be cordoned off and constantly guarded. There is a constant battle going on between government authorities and the stalkers who attempt to steal from the Zones.

Anyone who spends a long time in the Zones changes as well. Stalkers who regularly enter the areas end up having children with strange birth defects. They also have to deal with horrifying injuries and incomprehensible sights. It is not only physically dangerous there, but mentally dangerous as well, and one of the main conflicts in the novel is Red's struggle to understand and make sense of the world he lives in now. The human mind just isn't equipped to witness what happens in the Zones.

I really enjoyed reading this novel, because it posed such interesting questions. I found myself imagining how we might really react if these visitations happened to us. The discovery of alien life and alien objects would certainly be a world-changing discovery, and I thought the whole idea of humanity being completely beneath the aliens' notice was clever and funny. The idea of picking through alien trash and being fundamentally changed by it while our alien visitors weren't giving the people of Earth a second thought was genius.

Roadside Picnic reminded me of a Philip K. Dick novel. The plot isn't exactly a complete story, certain details are left unexplained, you get a bit confused from time to time as you read. However, the topics it explores are intriguing and intelligent. It is well-paced and doesn't ever feel boring. This short novel was very unique and definitely worth the read for any science fiction fan.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club: 11/100 (on track to end 12/31/21)
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 27/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 34

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom

I wasn't planning on reading Tuesdays with Morrie this month, but a very kind gesture by one of my students dropped this book into my lap. I noticed that one of my girls was reading this novel in class last week, and I asked her if she was enjoying it. Immediately, she told me about how wonderful it was and offered to loan it to me when she was finished. I accepted her offer (since I needed a book with a day of the week in the title for my Popsugar challenge), and she handed me her copy a few days later. With summer break quickly approaching this year, I picked it up right after I finished Rebecca, so that I could get it back to her before the end of school.

Tuesdays with Morrie is a short memoir that describes the relationship between author Mitch Albom, and his professor and mentor, Morrie Schwartz. At the beginning of the novel, Albom describes the special bond he shared with this professor while he attended Brandeis University. He took all of Schwartz's classes and often met him during his office hours to discuss everything from his coursework to big questions about life in general. After Albom graduated and began pursuing a career as a journalist, the pair lost touch.

After several years passed, Albom happened to see a story on television about his old mentor. He learned that Schwartz was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gerhig's Disease). Rather than crumble beneath the weight of his fatal diagnosis, Schwartz decided to embrace his situation and turn his death into a project. He would share what was happening to him with others and explore the journey from life into death in an open and calm way. His resolution to use his illness to help others caught the attention of Ted Koppel, who interviewed him for the episode of Nightline that Albom stumbled upon. Feeling a bit ashamed that he lost touch with such an influential and special person from his past, he makes plans to visit his old professor right away.

One meeting with Schwartz turns into two, then three, and soon the pair end up meeting every Tuesday to discuss a wide range of topics. Conversations about love, family, marriage, old age, and death fill the hours they spend together. Schwartz is a treasure trove of wisdom and Albom grows very close to him as he moves closer to the end of his life. Eventually, he begins recording their conversations, and those recordings are what he eventually turns into Tuesdays with Morrie.

To say that this book was touching and inspirational is an understatement. Albom does a wonderful job documenting his relationship with Schwartz, mixing in their current conversations with flashbacks to events from his own past and Schwartz's past. The chapters are short and highly readable, with lots of touching moments and great advice for how to life a meaningful and satisfying life. The advice Schwartz espouses focuses on the importance of human relationships and love over things like money or career goals. He stresses the importance of rejecting a culture that tells us we are never good enough. His common sense and positive outlook on life is highly motivating, especially considering how much he suffers with his ALS. He is a charming and interesting man - the kind of person that you wish were your father. It made me feel that if he is able to be friendly, loving, and optimistic in the face of a terrible and fatal illness, I should be able to maintain a better attitude in my own relatively trouble-free life.

After finishing Tuesdays with Morrie, I can completely understand why my student was so eager to lend it to me. Not only is it a great read, but it makes you want to be more kind to others. Any book that can move you to try and be a better person earns high marks from me. The ending of the novel is sad, as it was inevitably going to be, but the impression it leaves on you is definitely worth the sadness. This emotional and touching memoir deserves its bestseller status and is one of those books that everyone can benefit from reading.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book with a month or day of the week in the title) 29/40

Total Books Read in 2017: 33

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Rebecca is a novel that I'd always been interested in reading because I'd heard so many people recommend it. This is one of those stories that people tend to fall in love with and praise endlessly. After seeing Karen at Books and Chocolate say she enjoyed this one more than Jane Eyre, I knew I wanted to include it in my Back to the Classics Challenge. Conveniently, there was a "romance classic" category this year, so Rebecca fit in perfectly.

The plot concerns a timid young woman who finds herself in the middle of a mysterious and difficult situation after marrying the enigmatic widower Maxim de Winter. Soon after her marriage, she takes on the responsibilities of being the new mistress of Manderly, a beautiful and expensive estate that has been in the de Winter family for many years. Once she arrives there, she immediately feels overwhelmed and out of place. Not only is Manderly a massive step up in social class for her, it is full of the memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. She feels awkward and incapable of running things as well as Rebecca did, and constantly runs afoul of Mrs. Danvers, the oddly sinister housekeeper. She is plagued by these anxieties and insecurities as she tries to settle in to her new life.

To make matters even more tense, the second Mrs. de Winter soon begins to question her marriage to Maxim. He is prone to dark moods and treats her more like a pet than a wife at times, leading her to believe that there is a whole other side to her husband that she failed to notice before marrying him.  What's more, details about Rebecca, who died in a mysterious boating accident about a year prior, begin to surface and cause unrest in the household. When an accident on the estate brings a shocking truth to light, Mrs. de Winter is forced to grow up and decide which path she wants her life to take.

This was a fantastic read, full of mystery and suspense. It was very much in the style of a Gothic romance, like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but written in 1938, making it a bit more modern than what I'm used to seeing in this genre. It was creepy fun to try and put together the pieces of what was going on at Manderly; the mystery and suspense elements were well-crafted and kept me engaged throughout my reading.The twist towards the end was very surprising and disturbing. I admit that I did not see it coming and I enjoyed watching the characters work through it.

A few things about the story bugged me. The protagonist, Mrs. de Winter, was a bit too shy and spineless for my taste. I'm as awkward and timid as they come, but I think that even I would have held up better at Manderly than she did. I grew frustrated with her inability to stand up for herself and confront people that needed to be called out for their behavior. Her fear of being honest with Maxim about certain things slowed down the novel. I understand that this was a purposeful technique on du Maurier's part to add suspense, but reading long sections of neurotic internal monologue about whether Maxim truly loved the protagonist or not did get old.

The ending of the novel was somewhat dissatisfying as well. Without spoiling anything it's difficult to discuss, but I can say that one character does something that I feel like Mrs. de Winter should have been way more frightened of than she was. I wish she would have been a little bit more level-headed and brave about her situation.

In spite of those little qualms, I still thought this was an excellent read, and I'm very glad that it ended up on my reading list for this year. The setting and story are full of a delicious old-fashioned creepiness that you don't come across too often these days. Rebecca was a very entertaining throwback to an older genre and told an intriguing story that I know will be sticking in my head for quite a while.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club: 10/100 (on track to end 12/31/21)
Back to the Classics:  9/12
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 26/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 32  

Monday, May 1, 2017

May 2017 Reading Plan

May has arrived and I'm loving watching all my challenge lists get smaller and smaller. Much like last month, I wasn't able to combine categories as much as I did in the few few months of the year, but I'm still on track to finish everything on time.

This month's reading list contains a weird mixture of all different genres, including a memoir, a teaching book, a classic, and some young adult lit. Here's the plan:

1. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • Back to the Classics: A romance classic
  • Classics Club: #78 on my list
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
2. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  • Classics Club: #48 on my list
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
3. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
  • Popsugar Challenge: A bestseller from a genre you don't normally read
4. Rigorous Reading by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with career advice
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
5. Trouble by Non Pratt
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with a red spine
  • Mount TBR: previously owned


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book you loved as a child
  • Mount TBR: previously owned 

Any extra time will be dedicated to clearing off more Popsugar categories. Hopefully I can squeeze in an extra novel or two.