Thursday, November 30, 2017

November 2017 Reading Wrap Up

November has come and gone and, happily, I had a pretty good reading month. Here's the breakdown:

1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (4/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book from a genre/subgenre that you've never heard of - Mannerpunk
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

2. American Gods by Neil Gaiman (5/5 stars)

  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book based on mythology
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

3. Pointe by Brandy Colbert (4/5 stars)

  • TBR Challenge: previously owned
4. A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall (3/5 stars)

  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

5. Boys Don't Knit by T.S. Easton (3/5 stars)
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

6. This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales (2/5 stars)

  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

My current challenge status is:

I have read 68 books so far in 2017!

I had two very strong reads this month, and both were from the fantasy genre. American Gods and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell were both long, intricate books that were totally worth the time. I've moved away from reading fantasy novels in recent years, and these two stories pulled me right back in and reminded me of what I liked about the genre.

My least favorite read this month was The Song Will Save Your Life, which contained some truly illogical plot points. It stretched the boundaries of my disbelief way too far, and featured an unlikable protagonist to boot. 

December is going to be a sprint to the finish for me - I'm very close to completing everything on my original goals list for the year, but I'm going to have to read a whole bunch to make it happen. Luckily, I will have my winter break to fit more books in.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

I picked up Leila Sales' This Song Will Save Your Life based on absolutely glowing reviews on Goodreads and on some the young adult book blogs I follow. Most of the reviews I saw praised this novel for its important message and emotional story. People didn't just like this book, they loved it. As a result, I went into reading it with very high hopes.

The first few chapters intrigued me, but as time went on and I got further and further into the story, I realized that this was destined to be one of those times where my opinion is different from the mainstream. I couldn't connect with this novel, and I'm having trouble understanding why so many people love it so much.

One of my biggest issues with it was the plot. It revolves around Elise Dembowski, a sixteen year old with a passion for music. At the beginning of the novel, she explains that she's always been considered "uncool" at her school and struggles to make friends. She is often the victim of bullying and cruel pranks. Determined to change her image, she spends the summer before her freshman year of high school trying to learn how to fit in. She studies up on celebrities and fashion trends and buys trendy new clothes. Unfortunately, her efforts don't yield the results she was looking for. Her first day of high school is no different than any other day. Disappointed and feeling doomed to a life of being ignored and insulted, Elise goes home and makes a halfhearted suicide attempt.

The story flashes forward at this point to her sophomore year. Elise is no longer suicidal, but still miserable with her life at school. She often sneaks out of her house spends all night walking alone through her city, listening to music and trying to clear her head. On one of these walks, she stumbles across an underground dance party at a club called Start. She meets two strangers outside that help her get in, even though she is underage. It is here that she discovers what will become her new passion, DJing.

Under the mentoring of Char, the club's nineteen-year-old resident DJ, Elise begins learning how to play music to the crowd. She has a natural talent for it, and before long, she is sneaking out of her house a few times a week to guest DJ during Char's shift. She also begins a sexual relationship with him, which she must keep hidden from her family and friends due to the age difference between them. After two months of this, the owner of Start offers Elise her own shift DJing on Friday nights. Overjoyed, she accepts.

However, while Elise is happy with her life at Start and with Char, she is still struggling socially in school. Someone has started up a fake blog pretending to be her and is saying all sorts of unkind and embarrassing things, which the other students at school delight in reading. She is also on thin ice with her father, whom she keeps ditching in order to sneak out to her DJ job. Maintaining her double life is becoming impossible, and she must figure out a way to continue nurturing her passion without getting in trouble.

While some elements of the plot were fine, so much of it was so unrealistic that it took me out of the story. The idea of a club owner offering a coveted DJ slot to an underage girl with only two months of experience is ridiculous, and probably illegal. This is all glossed over however, as if employing a sixteen year old in a nightclub without any parental permission or paperwork is normal and acceptable. Elise's relationship with Char is cringe-inducing and also probably illegal. When they meet, she is sixteen and he is a few months away from turning twenty. It made me uncomfortable to read about this young girl making out with a legal adult and spending nights at his house. Again, Sales barely acknowledges that this is a potential issue. It felt like the novel was set in an alternate universe where anything goes and nobody cares what happens.

On top of the story issues, I just couldn't connect with Elise's character. Generally speaking, coming of age stories about bullied teenagers have fairly sympathetic protagonists. Elise, however, is very difficult to like. Her attitude is terrible, she treats her family with complete disregard, and even looks down on the only girls at school who try to be friends with her as losers. She has a consistent belief that she is better than everyone around her, and the only reason she is bullied is because she is so special and talented that other people are jealous. She is actually just as guilty of self-centered stupidity as the bullies at school who give her a hard time. Her character was bizarre and I just couldn't bring myself to care too much about her situation.

On a more positive note, I did enjoy the different music mentioned throughout the story. After I finished reading, I looked on Spotify to see if anyone had created a playlist out of all the songs mentioned, and sure enough, someone had. The music is mostly older rock and some bluesy tunes. I had fun listening to it, because I hadn't heard of all the songs before.

I also thought that the book was competently written. I finished it quickly and was engaged enough to be curious about how it would end. Elise definitely had some sarcastic moments that were pretty funny too. It's just too bad that her negative character traits were so pervasive in the story.

So, in the end it turned out that This Song Will Save Your Life wasn't my cup of tea. I appear to be in the minority on that opinion, but that's okay. Different strokes for different folks and all that. At least this one was tame enough to stick in my classroom library.

Challenge Tally
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 54/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 68

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Boys Don't Knit by T.S. Easton

When I was in college, I got it into my head that I wanted to learn to knit. I bought a copy of Knitting for Dummies, a set of cheap plastic needles from Walmart (US size 7), and some awful pink acrylic worsted weight yarn. Firmly adhering to my belief that books are the best way to learn anything, I patiently taught myself to knit. It wasn't easy at first, but after a lot of reading, practicing, and looking things up on the internet, I became a knitter.

Before long, I was completely addicted to my needles and yarn, and my collection of supplies and fiber grew over the years. New, more advanced knitting books lined my shelves, a collection of smooth bamboo needles filled my drawers, and an inexhaustible stash of buttery, luxurious yarns spilled out of my closet. Over time, I began honing my techniques. I could make socks using four tiny needles and a skein of thin yarn. I could knit lace patterns from silk spun so finely that it looked like thread. I could knit chunky cables that wove their way around hats and through scarves. Knitting was more than a hobby, it was my meditation. Sitting on the couch with a pattern on my lap and my needles in my hands was it's own kind of tranquility that I could relax into.

When I graduated from college and had trouble finding a teaching job, knitting got me through endless hours of substitute work. All of my anxieties about finding a classroom of my own released their grip on my brain, flowed out of my fingers, and turned into something beautiful as piece after piece of work fell off my needles. It took a year and a half for me to find a permanent position. It was one of the more difficult, embarrassing, and uncertain periods of my life, but knitting got me through it.

When that permanent classroom did come, a whole new set of duties and tasks took up my hours. I knit less and less, finishing maybe just a few projects per year. Although I don't have the time or energy to work with my needles and yarn as much as I'd like to today, my love and admiration for the craft has never changed. Knitting is good for my soul, and is a hobby that I will carry with my for the rest of my life.

So naturally, as an avid knitter, T.S. Easton's Boys Don't Knit intrigued me as soon as I saw it on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. The plot concerns a teenage boy named Ben Fletcher who, at the beginning of the novel, gets busted for shoplifting and put on probation for one year. As part of the conditions of his probation, he is required to keep a diary to reflect on his thoughts and feelings, perform a number of community service hours, and enroll in an extracurricular course at his local community college. The choices are few when it comes to his extracurricular course, so he ends up picking a knitting class.

To Ben's surprise, he ends up falling in love with knitting. He has a natural talent for it, and he is able to visualize patterns in his head and learn new techniques easily. He finds himself seeking out new luxury yarns and needles outside of class, reading knitting magazines, listening to knitting podcasts, and designing his own patterns. He quickly outstrips the rest of his classmates and ends up competing in the junior division of a knitting championship in his city. Knitting quiets the anxieties in Ben's brain and allows him to form healthy, supportive relationships with the rest of the women in his knitting circle. It provides him with an outlet that he didn't realize he needed.

However, Ben's new hobby has its drawbacks. Knitting is seen as a woman's pursuit, and Ben is afraid that his friends and family will judge him as being effeminate. To shield himself from potential bullying, he decides to keep his new skills a secret from everyone, especially his father, who is very concerned with him acting "manly" at all times. His deception is difficult to maintain and stresses him out, but he can't imagine a world in which everyone just accepts that the fiber arts are his passion. Boys Don't Knit is a story about growing up, learning from your mistakes, and figuring out who you are.

So much of this book was wonderful. What Ben finds in knitting is the same thing I found - its meditative and creative elements are an outlet for the stresses of everyday life. All of his feelings about the craft, from admiring new needles to squishing new yarn skeins, could have been written about myself. All of the technical information was correct as well - the descriptions of different yarns, supplies, stitches, and patterns was dead-on. At one point, Ben's dad uses one of his Addi Turbo needles to scratch inside his ear, and I winced out loud right alongside Ben.You can't use an Addi needle as a Q-tip! Those things are the Cadillac of knitting needles! Easton got all the little details right. If he doesn't knit himself, them someone very close to him does. This novel was spilling over with authentic knitting knowledge and feelings. I loved this aspect of it.

What I didn't love so much were some of the sillier aspects of the plot. Ben's friends were annoying and obviously bad news. His father was ridiculously inappropriate and irresponsible. These characters only functioned to add complications to the plot and didn't feel real. They were obnoxious caricatures. Most disturbing to me was Ben's English teacher, Miss Swallow. She behaved extremely inappropriately with him. She was overly friendly and shared way too much personal information about herself. At one point, she even asked him to dance with her at a nightclub. As a teacher myself, I'm sensitive to how other teachers are portrayed, and I wasn't comfortable to see Ben openly lusting after this woman and becoming involved in her personal life. It crossed lines to me and detracted from the story.

For those reasons, I'm rating Boys Don't Knit at three stars. I absolutely loved everything about the knitting in it. For those sections, I could have been reading about myself. The parts where Ben is interacting with other characters, however, dragged down my enjoyment. Even so, I had a great time reading this one. It stirred up a lot of feelings I have for knitting that have lain dormant in me for too long. It reminded me that I need to make time for this craft in my life, because it makes me feel at peace. A book that can do all that is an enjoyable read indeed.

Challenge Tally
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 53/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 67

A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall

I've had Sandy Hall's A Little Something Different on my shelf for years now. What initially attracted me to this young adult romance was the pretty cover art (it turns out that I DO judge books by their covers). The description on the back promised a different sort of love story - one told from the perspective of everyone except the couple themselves. Intrigued by how that narrative strategy would play out, I picked it up and added it to my never-ending "to read" pile. With my Thanksgiving break winding down, I decided that it was finally the right time to give this little book a shot.

The plot concerns two college students named Lea and Gabe. From the moment they meet in their creative writing class, they are instantly attracted to each other. Everyone around them can sense the spark they share, but they are both too shy and awkward to take the plunge and strike up a real conversation. Lea is just a freshman, and is a little nervous about interacting with others in her new environment while Gabe is struggling with some issues stemming from a car accident he was in a year ago. All they can muster up the courage to do is share some meaningful glances, which do nothing but embarrass them both.

Fate, however, seems to be trying to help them connect. They bump into each other constantly on campus, get paired together on class assignments, and even live in the same dorm building. Everyone around them, from their friends, to their family members, to their classmates, to random strangers on the street try to push them towards each other. The story is told from the viewpoints of fourteen different characters that want to see them grow closer, and as readers, we hold our breath along with them, hoping that either Lea or Gabe will finally take the plunge and get together.

This novel's biggest strength is its sweetness. Lea and Gabe are both nice kids that you want to see succeed. The multiple viewpoint narration definitely adds to this element, as we see them behave in ways more endearing than they would probably describe their own actions. I liked that the narrators were both friends and strangers to the pair, because this allowed me to get different sorts of information about them. Gabe's brother, for example, provides information about Gabe's personal life and history, while the barista at Starbucks gives a more objective picture of his actions. Both types of observations are necessary to round out the story. Along the way, important details about the pair are revealed through random bits of conversations, allowing the reader to gradually piece together who these characters are. It was a unique way to tell a story, and I liked it.

Also, one of the narrators is a squirrel that runs around their campus, and that was awesome. That was my favorite viewpoint out of the fourteen.

Where A Little Something Different struggles is its momentum and realism. Lea and Gabe are so obviously perfect for each other that it becomes tiring to see them constantly fail to connect. In order to keep them apart for a novel's worth of material, Hall resorts to increasingly dubious reasons for them to misunderstand each other. It was very easy to forget that I was reading about college kids, because the book contained a lot of high school-style drama with gossip, rumors, confusion, and pointless dishonesty driving a lot of the plot. It got to a point about halfway through the book where the pace felt very slow and repetitive. It was too much of them almost getting together and then at the last second something messing it up.

It also got very hard to believe that so many people would spend such big portions of their time and energy on getting Lea and Gabe together. When you have to resort to having a professor design actual college assignments around two of her students falling in love, you may have run out of ideas. Similarly, I doubt that a Chinese delivery guy would actually tell their customers they should get together based on similar takeout orders. More than once. I think that the narrative strategy would have been stronger if there had been more nuance to the observations and contributions of the different narrators.

My version of the book included a short interview with Sandy Hall in which she described her evolution as a writer. She actually has a background in writing fanfiction, and she got this work published through an online forum where writers post chapters of young adult romance novels for readers to comment on and rate. She also says that she wrote A Little Something Different, her first novel, in only six days. This was followed by a lengthy editing process in which she rewrote a lot of scenes and deleted over a dozen additional narrators. This could explain some of the issues I found while reading. Perhaps her earlier versions allowed for more realistic stretches of character development.

In any case, A Little Something Different was a very sweet read. The unique narration was interesting to explore and I liked both Lea and Gabe, even if I found some of their decisions frustrating. This will make a very appropriate addition to my classroom library - some of my 8th graders are bound to fall in love with it. There's not much here for adult readers, who will pick up on how some of the plot events are overreaching, but teens will enjoy the cute romance of it all.

Challenge Tally
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 52/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 66

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Pointe by Brandy Colbert

*Minor spoilers in this review*

I picked up Pointe by Brandy Colbert on a whim a year or so ago based on some positive Amazon recommendations. The description on the back made it sound like a suspenseful and scandalous story involving ballerinas, so right away, I was intrigued. Like a lot of people, I nurse a fascination for dancers, especially ballerinas with their fluffy tutus and impossible grace. A story set in that world sounded good to me. Plus, the novel was the recipient of a handful of young adult fiction awards, so I figured that I could stick it into my classroom library once I was finished.

After reading it, I have to say that I am surprised. Pointe ended up being way more serious and complex than I was imagining it would be. This is not a spicy ballerina story - it touches on topics ranging from teen drug/alcohol use, to PTSD, to eating disorders, to rape. I found myself unprepared for the gritty realism of the story, but ended up enjoying the journey and appreciating Pointe's overall message.

The plot concerns a high school student named Theo who has big dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer. She has the talent, drive, and support to achieve this goal, but some tragic events from her past are threatening her emotional well being. These events are revealed slowly throughout the first part of the novel and include her heartache over a breakup with a boyfriend that was too old for her, the abduction of a childhood friend of hers four years ago, and an eating disorder she has recently gotten back under control. In spite of these difficulties, she is making her way through her junior year of high school and gearing up for some important tryouts in her ballet program. Things aren't necessarily perfect for her, but they are okay.

Her progress, however, is completely disrupted when something incredible happens. Donovan, her childhood friend that was abducted years ago, is found. The man he was found with is arrested, and Theo is stunned to discover that she knows him. All of a sudden, she has choices to make. Sharing what she knows about Donovan's abductor will irrevocably change her life and could potentially put the future she's worked so hard for in the ballet world at risk. She isn't even sure if it would be right to tell - Donovan refuses to speak to anyone about what happened and Theo half-thinks that maybe he ran away willingly with this man. If he wanted to go, should she risk spoiling her life by telling what she knows?

As the trial for the abductor approaches, Theo is plagued with indecision. She will have to testify no matter what because she was the last one to see Donovan before he disappeared four years ago, but she has no idea what to say on the stand. Her stress throws her into a spiral of poor decision-making involving drug use, falling for an unavailable boy, and a return to her former eating disorder.
She has the weight on the world on her shoulders, her pain is palpable, and she must find a way to move forward in the face of some truly difficult obstacles.

Pointe was quite good, but it is not for the faint of heart. It's raw and gritty. Theo engages in casual drug use, swears like a typical teenager, and has sex. I was surprised at how graphic some of the story was. This is definitely an older teen book (sadly, I definitely can't put it in my 8th grade classroom library). However, the inclusion of these elements, while sometimes jarring, definitely felt genuine and helped develop Theo's character. Theo is a tough character to like. She makes terrible decisions throughout the story - the kind of decisions that make you want to shake her by the shoulders and ask her what she is thinking. At the same time, you feel bad for her and understand that she acts this way because of the intense pain she has buried inside of her. 

The ending of the novel is where Pointe really shines. Throughout my reading, I was focused a little bit more on the concrete elements of the abduction plot - I wanted to know specifics. I wanted to see Donovan explain what happened. Colbert ends up telling the story differently - Theo is the one who must decide how much to say, because Donovan can't. His PTSD over the situation has rendered him unable to communicate what happened. I was disappointed with this narrative choice at first. I was hoping for a tearful and happy reunion between the pair, complete with a discussion of what Donovan went through. I realize now that having a scene like that would not be realistic. Events this tragic and messy don't have neat conclusions. They explode people's lives. Theo, as the less damaged of the two, ends up being on her own in the wake of the tragedy, which places the focus solely on her inner strength. The sacrifices she makes at the end of the novel to heal Donovan and herself are beautiful, and the strongest part of the story.

Pointe was not exactly what I thought it would be, but in the best ways possible. It's a book that I would encourage older teens to pick up, especially girls. So many of us struggle with confidence and feelings of self doubt. Theo, while not a textbook heroine, is an example of how to dig deep and do what's best for yourself and others. This ended up being a surprisingly good read. 

Challenge Tally
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 51/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 65

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

One of the more difficult prompts in the Popsugar Reading Challenge this year is to "read a book from a genre you've never heard of before." As an avid reader that picks up a wide variety of different books, I was hard-pressed to find a genre that I hadn't at least heard of before. I turned to the internet for help (as one does in these situations) and stumbled across something called mannerpunk - a genre which blends fantasy elements together with the strict societal hierarchies typical of a Jane Austen novel. Some sources also call this genre "fantasy of manners." While the boundaries between this and other subgenres under the umbrella of fantasy literature are a bit vague, mannerpunk is essentially a fantasy novel, generally set in the past, where magic exists alongside strict societal rules. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was given as an example of this genre on several websites, and I already owned it on my Kindle, so I decided to give it a try.

The plot concerns two men, the eponymous Strange and Norrell, who work together to bring magic back to 19th century England. The novel is set up like a nonfiction text, complete with copious footnotes, describing the curious history of these magicians as they try to bring practical, helpful magic out of the realm of Merlin and into their modern era. Strange and Norrell are extremely different characters. Strange is adventurous and open, while Norrell is cautious and guarded. Strange wants to tread into areas of magic that have lain undisturbed for centuries, while Norrell wants to discard the dangerous elements of magic from the past and take things in a "safer" direction. Strange wants to train up new magicians to preserve the presence of magic in England, while Norrell wants to be the only magician and gatekeeper of magical knowledge. These differences lead the pair to quarrel frequently, but being the only two magicians in town, they always find their way back to each other in the end. Eventually, both end up dabbling in magic that is dangerous to them and to the world at large, and they must try to team up and set things right again.

This book is surprisingly long (my version had nearly 900 pages), and I experienced a lot of changes in mood while reading. I've endeavored to create a timeline of my thoughts below:

100 pages in: Okay, this is cleverly written - I like the tongue-in-cheek humor and period language. I can't really tell what the story is yet though...and where the heck is Jonathan Strange? It's all Norrell so far...

200 pages in: So...are we ever going to get to Strange? I still have no idea what the overall story will be, and Mr. Norrell isn't incredibly interesting. There are a lot of digressions with minor characters happening too and I have no idea what they connect to...

300 pages in: Oh my god, this story will never end. This is going to take forever to finish!

400 pages in: Okay, I can get through this - I just need some breaks. I'll read another two percent then go get a snack. Another two percent and I'll check my email. Another two percent and I'll clean the bathroom...

500 pages in: Well, now Jonathan Strange has been around for a bit now and he's pretty interesting. I like the differences between the two characters. They both seem like real people, with individual strengths and flaws.

600 pages in: Things are definitely picking up now, and I can start to see where the story is headed. The minor characters' storylines are starting to connect up and I think I know what the overall conflict is now.

700 pages in: Whoa, this is really intricate and well-crafted. All that world-building is starting to pay off now.

800 pages in: Can't. Stop. Reading.

When I finished:This is one of the best fantasy novels I've ever read. Beautiful Complex. Happy. Sad. Everything. I'm in a book coma.   

So obviously, I ended up really liking this novel, but at the same time, I can't recommend it to that many people. The amount of patience required to get through the first half is intense. The beautiful and imaginative ending is well worth the time investment, but few people have the reading stamina to make it that far these days.

If you do manage to power through the slow beginning, you are rewarded with wonderfully strange plot points, intricate connections between characters, clever comments on themes ranging from loyalty to race relations, perfect dry wit, and a resolution that is a near perfect blend of happy and sad. Susanna Clarke's world-building is tremendous. Her magical 19th century England feels fully developed and the mannerpunk elements she crafts are the perfect backdrop for a story about gentleman magicians. The mix of aristocratic stuffiness and fantastical magic was a truly winning combination. Mannerpunk is a genre worth exploring further.

Those looking for a fast-paced story should stay far away, but fantasy lovers looking to sit down and savor an epic tale of manners and magic will fall in love with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. This novel is well worth the time investment if you have the patience to take it on. While I can't give this novel my highest rating due to the slow beginning, it is definitely destined to become one of my top reads of the year. I'm so glad I chose to explore the mannerpunk genre and that this was the book I chose to do it with.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Bonus Challenge (a book from a genre you've never heard of before ) 10/12
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 50/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 64

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Back to the Classics 2017 - Complete!

 Image from Karen K. at Books and Chocolate

One of the challenges that I participated in this year was the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen K. at Books and Chocolate. I am happy to report that I finished all of the categories this year - two months early! This means that I get three entries in the prize drawing, but of course, the all of the reading that I did for this is its own reward.

Here's the breakdown of everything I read:

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)

Contact info for Karen (just in case I win the prize): quiet.kristina[at]gmail[dot]com

My favorite read of the bunch this year was probably The Bell Jar, but Germinal, King Lear, and Black Beauty were serious considerations for my top pick. I made some good choices here! My least favorite was Crime and Punishment, but even so, I didn't actively dislike anything I picked up.

As usual, I loved taking part in this challenge and I hope to continue on with it next year. Thank you Karen, for running a fun, low-key challenge that helps me to read more classic novels every year.

Friday, November 10, 2017

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I first became interested in American Gods when I saw previews for the television adaptation a while back. I was already a fan of Gaiman's writing from The Graveyard Book, and the images coming out for this new show were really intriguing. Of course, I had to read the book before I could watch the TV version, so I did what I normally do - I went out and bought the book, stuck it on my shelf, and forgot about it for several months.

I remembered that I wanted to read it when I was searching for book recommendations for my Popsugar Challenge bonus categories. One of my remaining reading prompts was to read a book based on mythology, and American Gods was the recommendation that popped up on all the sources I checked. I decided to give it a shot, despite its length (with the end of the year approaching, I have to read quickly to finish up my challenges). I ended up being glad that I did, because this quirky novel was actually really cool.

The plot follows an ex-convict named Shadow. At the novel's start, he is just finishing up a three-year stint in prison for an undisclosed crime. He is focused on keeping his head down and doing his time, and is looking forward to reuniting with his wife, Laura. On the day he is set to be released, he receives a terrible blow - both Laura and best friend were killed in a car accident the previous day. With nothing left in the world for him to go back to, Shadow isn't sure how to continue on. He is leaves prison in a state of shock and grief.

As he mulls over his situation on the plane ride to his wife's funeral, he meets a mysterious figure named Mr. Wednesday. Wednesday offers him a job performing various odd jobs, which Shadow eventually accepts because he doesn't have any other prospects lined up. It doesn't take long for Shadow to realize that there is something different about his new employer. Wednesday seems to be able to do the impossible, and the places he goes and people he interacts with see to be impossible too. Working for him is like living in a fever dream, with each new errand he performs stranger than the last. Eventually, Shadow discovers the reason for this strangeness. Wednesday is actually a god. Wednesday is Odin, from Norse mythology.

Once Shadow realizes who he is working for, an entire new world opens up before his eyes. He learns that America is full of the gods of old, from all of the religions around the world. Believers from the past brought them here through their prayers in times long gone by, and they linger here still, even though the vast majority of people who worship them are dead and gone. These old gods are slowly fading away; they die when they are completely forgotten by everyone, which is happening fast in America. As Wednesday eventually explains to him, America worships new gods now - technology, guns, media, drugs, and others like them are the new order of the day. Wednesday is on a quest to help the old gods regain the powers they once had and take a final stand against the new gods, and he needs Shadow's help to do it.

The novel is told mostly from Shadow's point of view and has a real "road trip" feel to it, as he is traveling from place to place with Wednesday for most of the story meeting up with different old gods and trying to persuade them to join forces. Occasionally, chapters featuring the backstories of how different gods traveled to America pop up, which provide interesting backstory and world-building. I actually liked these interludes the most, as they were well-written and made me think. Gaiman doesn't explain every last detail of how the world in American Gods works - he gives you just enough to puzzle over and sink your teeth into. Reading this novel is an active experience that requires you to put the pieces together yourself and encourages you to think beyond the surface level of the story. I usually find novels that are purposely confusing to be annoying, but I thought that the technique was very well done and worked well here.

Aside from puzzling over the plot points of the novel, American Gods offers up several interesting themes to think about. The idea of tradition vs. modernization runs deep here, but not in a way that feels preachy or moralizing. Similarly, the ideas of loyalty, religion, family, and love are present throughout the story. This is a extraordinary novel about ordinary ideas, and this juxtaposition of the bizarre and the practical makes for a really unique reading experience. The book feels like a labor of love. Nothing is missing.

I really enjoyed reading American Gods. I honestly haven't been this intrigued by a novel in a long time. There were some parts in the middle where I felt the story dragged on a bit too long, but overall I really liked it. The plot was interesting and original, the characters were well-drawn and lovable, and the ending was twisty and fantastic. The book begs to be reread in order to catch more of its secrets and clever references. I will probably pick it up again someday and see if I can dive a little bit deeper into the story it is telling. American Gods, even more than The Graveyard Book, made me a fan of Neil Gaiman. I'm going to be thinking about this one for quite a while. 

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Bonus Challenge (a book based on mythology ) 9/12
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 49/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 63

Thursday, November 9, 2017

November 2017 Reading Plan

Some crazy work circumstances and a few slow reads have made me fall a little behind in my reading challenges lately. I would hate to miss my goals right at the end of the year, so I need to rally! Here's the plan this month:

1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book from a genre/subgenre that you've never heard of - Mannerpunk
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

2. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book based on mythology
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

3. Pointe by Brandy Colbert
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned
4. A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned
5. Boys Don't Knit
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned


6. This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

My strategy is to power through some of the Popsugar bonus books, then clear some of the young adult backlog I've got going on off my shelves. All of those reads will help with my TBR challenge, which I still have 12 books left on. If everything goes according to plan this month, I will be set to race to the finish line with my challenges in December. I'm going to try to make reading a priority again this month, and not let work get in the way. Hopefully I can get it together!

October 2017 Reading Wrap Up

October is at an end and I only read a small fraction of what I wanted. Unfortunately for my reading life, my work life got in the way. I'm moving most of my selections to November. Hopefully, I will have more luck that month.

I finished a grand total of two novels in October, making this my least productive reading month of the year. Boo. Anyway, here's what I did manage to get done:

1. Dune by Frank Herbert (4/5 stars)
  • Classics Club: #47 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book that's more than 800 pages

2. Dracula by Bram Stoker (3/5 stars)
  • Back to the Classics: A Gothic or Horror Classic
  • Classics Club: #60 on my list 
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book mentioned in another book
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

My current challenge status is:

I have read 62 books so far in 2017!

The best thing about this month was finishing my Back to the Classics challenge! I'm so happy to have finished for the third year in a row! I definitely want to do it all again next year.

With only two books read, it seems pointless to do a "best and worst of the month" reflection. Besides, neither of the books I read will become special favorites of mine. They are both classic, and I did enjoy them, but they both had boring stretches that caused me to dawdle while reading them. With the month I've been having at work, my brain just wasn't eager to jump into my October picks. I am hoping that I can recharge and do better in November.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I had to read a Gothic or horror classic this year for my Back to the Classics challenge. I had been meaning to read Dracula for years, so I figured that now was the time to actually do it. The fact that it's Halloween season was an added bonus too - it made the reading extra spooky.

Dracula is narrated through a collection of letters and journal entries written from the perspectives of several different characters. The novel opens with the journal of Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor who is on his way to Transylvania to help a client purchase some real estate in London. This client, Lord Dracula, lives in a ruined castle situated in a gloomy and isolated forest. When he first arrives at the castle, Harker is intrigued by his eccentric and hospitable host. However, his interest soon turns to fear as the days go by and Dracula's true nature and intentions are revealed--he is a vampire that is looking to move to England for a fresh supply of victims. Unwittingly, Harker helps him travel to London. Once Dracula is loose in the city, the real adventure begins.

From this point forward, the story shifts perspectives between several different characters who are all drawn into Dracula's dark path. The cast includes Mina Harker, Jonathan's fiancee,  Lucy Westenra, Mina's dear friend, Arthur Holmwood, Lucy's fiancee, Dr. Seward, the man in charge of a local asylum, and, of course, the vampire expert, Dr. Van Helsing. Their stories begin separately, but are gradually drawn together as they unite to try and put an end to Dracula's reign of terror. Their quest to track him down takes them across Europe and brings them face to face with many unspeakable terrors. Eventually, they arrive back where the story started, Transylvania, for one final battle.

Dracula is one of those larger-than-life characters that every lover of the classics should get to know. He is the source of all the characteristics we have come to expect from a vampire: He must sleep in his native soil, he doesn't have a reflection, he must be invited inside a dwelling before he can enter, he has very pointy incisors, and he fears garlic and crucifixes. He has super-human strength and an aristocratic, intelligent demeanor. He mixes being suave and personable with being animalistic and wild. He is absolutely the best part of the novel, but aside from the beginning section of the story when he imprisons Jonathan in his castle, he doesn't appear in it very much. I found myself wishing for way more of him, and way less of the supporting characters.

The exception to that is the character of Dr. Van Helsing, who has become a classic literary hero in his own right. Van Helsing serves as the source of knowledge about vampires in the novel, and becomes the fearless leader of the group as they work together to find and slay Dracula. His skills, intelligence, and calm, kind demeanor are indispensable to the story and make him stand out from the sea of rather interchangeable, bland supporting characters that surround him. As an additional bit of character-building, his journal entries in the novel contain quite a few comical misspellings and misinterpretations of English words, due to his Dutch heritage. He is one of literature's most famous "tough guys," so I'm glad to have met him.

I wish that I could spend a few more paragraphs talking about how much I loved this novel, but the truth is that aside from liking some of the characters, I found Dracula to be a little bit boring. This is primarily due to its epistolary format. The letters and journals of the characters go into such meticulous detail about their plans that the reading often felt very slow. In particular, their quest to destroy the boxes of Transylvanian dirt that Dracula brought to London with him take up way too many pages. I was expecting that a book focused on finding and killing a powerful vampire would have me on the edge of my seat, but alas, that was not how I felt while reading. Some parts were exciting and interesting. Many parts were not.

However, despite my dissatisfaction with some sections, I am still glad that I read Dracula. It was mostly enjoyable, and getting to know the classic literary characters it contained made it worth the read. I was expecting a little more excitement, but I have to cut the novel some slack--it was one of the first books of its kind, and the modern horror stories that thrill audiences today have grown out of what Dracula established. This was one of the last classic monster novels I hadn't read, so I'm glad to have experienced it.

On a happy side note, this was my very last book for my Back to the Classics Challenge this year! I'll be writing a wrap up post for that soon. I also managed to fit this into my Popsugar bonus challenge-Dracula is mentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird, which I noticed while reading it to my classes this year.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club Challenge (#47 on my list): 20/100
Back to the Classics Challenge (a Gothic or horror classic) 12/12 - Complete!
Popsugar Bonus Challenge (a book mentioned in another book) 8/12
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 48/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 62