Sunday, December 31, 2017

Reading Reflection: 2017

In December of 2016, I set myself a series of reading challenges for this year. I decided to tackle a whole bunch of goals, and I actually completed all of them! This post is a look back on everything I accomplished in my reading life in 2017.

My Goodreads reading goal was to read a total of 76 books for the year. I accomplished that and then some, reading a total of 81 books in 2017. You can see all the books I read this year here.

This challenge required participants to read 12 classic novels fitting different prompts throughout the year. I completed all of the categories about a month early! My wrap up post is here.

The Classics Club is a five-year challenge in which participants create a list of classic novels they want to read during that time period. This was my first year working on my list, and my goal was to read at least 20 of the books on my list. I ended up reading 20, so I am on track. You can view my complete Classic Club list here.

This challenge consisted of 40 reading prompts, plus a dozen bonus categories to keep you busy if you finished early. The prompts were widely varied and meant to encourage participants to read a whole bunch of novels that they wouldn't ordinarily pick up on their own.

I finished all of the prompts, including the bonus ones, and I have to say that the mission of this challenge was definitely accomplished. The complete list of what I read is here.

I read so many wonderful books throughout the course of this challenge that it's difficult to say if I had a true favorite. The Bell Jar, A Room with a View, and Germinal became new classic favorites of mine. On the more modern side, this challenge introduced me to The Girls, History of Wolves, Another Brooklyn, American Gods, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and Maus, all of which I loved. 

Aside from just reading different kinds of books, this challenge also introduced me to audio books, which I had actually never tried before this year. While reading novels the old fashioned way is still my favorite way to experience a story, I've started to use audio books while I exercise now, which has been useful for when I get sick of listening to music.

Overall, this challenge was definitely a success and I'm glad I took it on. There is already another set of prompts for 2018's Popsugar Challenge posted, but I think I'm going to pass for next year. I have my own ideas for what I want to read in 2018, which I will write about later.

The 2017 Mount TBR Challenge required participants to read books that they already owned prior to 2017. As I have a major book-buying problem, this one was right up my alley. I signed up to read 60 novels I had sitting on my shelves, and I met that goal. Here's is a list of everything I read.

Many of the novels I read for his challenge doubled as my Popsugar books, so I don't have a lot to add as far as favorites goes. The point of this challenge was to read things I already owned, and I definitely did that. Embarrassingly enough, what I read here is only a fraction of all the books I own, so I still have some work to do in this area.

This ended up being a great year for reading and blogging, and I feel very proud of completing all of the challenges I took on. I've already got some ideas running through my head for what I want to tackle next year. As always, reading continues to be my favorite hobby and my best escape from dealing with the stresses of the real world. I'm looking forward to continuing on blogging, learning, and growing next year.

December 2017 Reading Wrap Up

Well, it's nearly the end of another year. I feel like 2017 went by in a flash. It's hard to believe that I'm writing my final wrap up post already. It feels like just a few months ago that I was planning out all my reading challenges and now here I am, at the end of all of them. It's a really nice feeling to have accomplished all my goals.

December ended up being a great reading month for me. I finished 13 (!) books in all, and completed all of my reading challenges. Here's the list of what I read:

1. To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han (4/5 stars)
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

2. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (3/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book you got at a used book sale

3. The Good Sister by Jamie Kain (4/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book with a family member term in the title
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

4. The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson (3/5 stars)
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned
5. The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider (2/5 stars)
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

6. Firecracker by David Iserson (3/5 stars)
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

7. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton (1/5 stars)
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

8. These Gentle Wounds by Helene Dunbar (3/5 stars)
  • TBR Challenge: previously owned

9. The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (4/5 stars)

My current challenge status is:

I read 81 books in 2017!

I read a lot of really great young adult novels this month, with To All the Boys I've Loved Before, The Good Sister, The Nest, Seedfolks, and Dark Places earning high marks from me.

My least favorite read of the month was The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, which had a weird, meandering plot and a terrible ending.

Next month will bring with it my new reading challenges. The start of a fresh year is always exciting, and I'm happily planning out what literary mountains I want to climb next. Reading is so important to me that I can't imagine my life without books...or without this blog for that matter. This has become a space for me to record all my feelings and memories about what I'm reading before the details start to slip away. I wouldn't remember half of what I read without this place, so I'm going to continue doing all of this in the new year. Who knows, maybe I'll do even better in 2018.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places is another book from the pile that my mother loaned to me ages ago. Continuing on in my mission to clear things out of my house before I move in the fall, I decided to read it as my last book for 2017. I finished it right in the nick of time too - it's New Year's Eve.

This was my second novel by Gillian Flynn (the first being Gone Girl). It's another mystery/thriller, this time centered around a troubled young woman named Libby Day. At the beginning of the novel we learn that Libby's family was massacred when she was seven years old. She managed to escape the bloodbath and fingered her brother, fifteen-year-old Ben, as the murderer. Her testimony sent him to prison for life. Since then, she has struggled to life a functional life, with bouts of depression and anger hitting her regularly. She's survived into her thirties on money donated by the public in the aftermath of the crime, but the fund is nearly empty. Unskilled and unable to even hold down a regular job, Libby is desperate for a way to earn enough money to live.

She sees a glimmer of hope when she is contacted by a representative for a group that likes investigating infamous crimes. The group members offer to pay her for interviews and old Day family memorabilia.She attends a meeting with these people and is immediately made uncomfortable by their firm belief that her testimony was false (most likely coached by her psychologist in the aftermath of the incident) and that her brother Ben was actually innocent of the crime. Lured by the promise of additional payments, Libby reluctantly agrees to begin speaking to people from her past and re-investigating what happened. Her efforts end up leading her to reconsider what she thought she knew about the night her family died and putting her in the middle of a dangerous web of secrecy and lies surrounding the murders.

Boy, does Gillian Flynn know how to craft an engaging mystery. I truly couldn't put this one down. Part of what made this such a page-turner was the clever narrative structure. The chapters of the novel alternate between Libby in the present day, and her mother and brother in the day before the massacre. As the chapters bounce around between these characters, more and more details are slowly revealed, allowing readers to put together the pieces as they read. Flynn is careful not to reveal too much at once and throws enough red herrings into the mix to keep you guessing until the end. I was not able to predict what the ending would be ahead of time, which is a bit unusual for me.

I also really enjoyed Libby's character. She was not very likable, but was troubled and vulnerable enough to make you care about her. I think she showed an accurate depiction of the emotional damage that someone in her position would have to deal with. Add to that her sarcastic sense of humor (that actually was pretty funny) and her toughness, and she was a great character to spend a novel with. The remaining cast of characters were well-written too, with Ben's inner turmoil and her mother's quiet desperation shining off the pages. No one in this novel was a great person, but they were all either sympathetic or interesting.

When all of the details of what happened were finally revealed at the end of the novel, I was happy to discover that I wasn't disappointed. Sometimes thrillers that present a great mystery don't end as cleverly as they began, but that wasn't an issue here. Everything made sense and wasn't what I was expecting. That's pretty much a best-case scenario for a thriller like this.

I'm quite happy that I chose to read Dark Places. It was a very well-crafted thriller, and fans of this genre would do well to check it out. You know, as I move through this stack of books on loan from my mom, I'm discovering that I'm enjoying her picks more than I thought I would. Don't tell her. There's still five left to go. Let's hope some other gems are in there.

Total Books Read in 2017:81

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

My mother loaned me The Silent Wife ages ago and it's sat under my nightstand ever since. She loans me a lot of books, actually, and I never read them in a timely manner. The truth is, we like different things. I'm into classic novels and quirky books. She likes beach reads and bestsellers. I don't say that as any sort of judgement whatsoever; different strokes for different folks, and all that. I would feel bad turning anything she offers to me away though, so I take the books and let them pile up. I currently have a big stack of her novels collecting dust in my room right now. Since I'm trying to move books out of my house in preparation for my move in the fall, I thought it was time to get some of them read.

The Silent Wife is the story of the complete breakdown of a marriage, told in alternating narration between the wife, Jodi, and her husband, Todd. In the first chapter of the novel, it is revealed that Jodi will eventually kill Todd, and most of the story concerns the buildup to that event. The alternating voices do a good job of feeding readers the story bit by bit, with frequent flashbacks filling in the blanks and providing nice character development along the way.

Todd is characterized as a philanderer, who is able to lead a double life without any guilt at all. His affair with a younger woman is the driving incident in the breakup of his marriage to Jodi. He isn't a malicious person, although his actions are undoubtedly hurtful to those around him. Rather, he is self-centered and addicted to the approval he derives from being with multiple women. He can explain away any amount of his terrible actions with his twisted logic. You both hate him and feel a little sorry for him at the same time.  Jodi is characterized as quiet and endlessly patient. She knows about Todd's dalliances with other women, but is able to look past them so long as they don't interfere with her day to day lifestyle. She simply remains silent about Todd's actions and enjoys their lavish apartment, designer clothes, and expensive vacations. She is the perfect housewife, preparing elaborate meals and keeping the household running smoothly. She knows things aren't perfect, but she can live with the flaws. When Todd's latest affair becomes a problem she can't ignore, however, her mind begins working differently, leading the couple towards its inevitable, violent end. 

This structural choices Harrison made in telling this story were highly engaging from page one. I liked being able to put together the pieces as I was reading, and tracking how Jodi, a seemingly normal, intelligent woman, could get to the point where she sees murder as a valid option. The writing was a little more complex and psychological than I was expecting, which was a pleasant surprise. This is one of those books that goes very quickly, because you want to see what the ending will be.

In fact, the ending is really the only thing about this novel that was a bit of a let down. After pages of smart storytelling, the resolution to everything turned on an insane coincidence. It seemed like a cop out to me. I was hoping for something more interesting. Even so, the book as a whole was still enjoyable-I just think the ending could have been better.

The Silent Wife ended up being a pretty good read, so I'll have to thank my mom for recommending it. It's perfect for someone who wants to get lost in a suspenseful, psychological story. Fans of Gone Girl or Girl on the Train will undoubtedly like this one too. I actually read both of those other ones on recommendations from my mom, so she seems to have a nose for these.

I still have six books from my mom stacked under my nightstand just waiting to be read, so this journey into things I wouldn't necessarily choose for myself will continue. Hey, at least I'm starting early on my resolution to clear some books out of my house.

Total Books Read in 2017:80

Clear the Shelves 2018 List

One of my most important reading goals this year is to get rid of some of my books. I have hundreds on my shelves, many of them unread. I rarely reread novels, so I know many of the ones I have now are destined to be donated to Goodwill or to my classroom library.

I'm moving from Florida to Connecticut in the fall of this year, and I'm not looking forward to packing and paying for all those books to be moved. I have to reduce the amount of books on my shelves over the next several months.

To that end, I'm going to dedicate a portion of my reading time each month to clearing off my shelves. After I finish with my classic novels and nonfiction picks for the month, I'm going to lean hard into the books I already own in an effort to weed some of them out. I don't necessarily have a number of books I'm looking to donate, but I want it to be significant.

I'm going to keep track of what I end up clearing off my shelves here throughout 2018, just for fun.

Before the move, I donated:

1. Born Round by Frank Bruni (loaned to me - gave back to my mom)
2. 10% Happier by Dan Harris (loaned to me - gave back to my mom)
3. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (loaned to me - gave back to my mom)
4. Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin (donated to my classroom library)
5. Find Her by Lisa Gardner (loaned to me - gave back to my mom)
6. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery (donated to my classroom library)
7. True Notebooks by Mark Salzman - (donated)
8. The Widow by Fiona Barton (loaned to me - gave back to my mom)
9. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (donated)
10. The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma (donated)
11. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (donated)
12. Gemini by Sonya Mukherjee (donated)
13. Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith (donated)
14. Kids of Appetite by David Arnold (donated)
15. These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner (donated)
16. Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire (donated)
17. The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork (donated)

After the move, I donated:

1. Icebreaker by Lian Tanner (donated to my classroom library) 
2. Screenshot by Donna Cooner (donated to my classroom library)
3. That's Not What Happened by Kody Keplinger (donated to my classroom library)
4. The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan (donated to my classroom library)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

True Books 2018 Goal List

One of my reading resolutions for 2018 is to read more nonfiction. I really do like informational texts, but I tend to grab fiction first when picking things to read. To that end, I've created a challenge for myself that I've dubbed the "True Books 2018 Challenge."

I looked through all of my books and created a list of all the nonfiction novels that I own, but haven't read yet. My challenge is to read them all before the end of 2018. I will return here to link up reviews as I go.

1. Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin - Completed February 2018
2. Radioactive by Lauren Redniss - Completed January 2018
3. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson - Completed May 2018
4. True Notebooks by Mark Salzman - Completed March 2018
5. Radium Girls by Kate Moore - Completed January 2018
6. This is Dali by Catherine Ingram / Dali by Christopher Masters
7. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery - Completed March 2018
8. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson - Completed March 2018
9. So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan
10. The Reading Promise by Alice Ozman - Completed May 2018
11. The Witches by Stacy Schiff
12. Under the Affluence by Tim Wise
13. Truevine by Beth Macy
14. Real Food/Fake Food by Larry Olmsted
15. Beyond Belief by Jenna Miscavige Hill
16. Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin
17. Animal Wise by Virginia Morell
18. Eat and Run by Scott Jurek
19. The End of your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
20. Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

*Bonus Books*

1. Born Round by Frank Bruni - Completed January 2018
2. 10% Happier by Dan Harris - Completed January 2018 

If I manage to make it through all of these books in 2018, it will be the most nonfiction that I've ever read in one calendar year. I think that would be pretty cool...and educational.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Back to the Classics 2018 - Sign Up Post

With 2018 rapidly approaching, I'm working on my reading goals for the new year. One of the challenges that I definitely want to do again is the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen K. at Books and Chocolate. 

The goal of the challenge is the same as last year- to read twelve classic novels over the course of the year. For the purposes of this challenge, a classic novel is defined as one written at least fifty years ago (so, by 1968). Each of the novels must fit one of the twelve reading prompts selected by Karen K. Some of these are the same as last year and some are different. I think that the selection of categories are really creative this time around, and I'm looking forward to getting started. 

Here are my choices for 2018:

1.  A 19th century classic: The American by Henry James (1877) - Completed March 2018  I first became interested in Henry James during an AP English exam when I was in high school. Part of the test had us analyze a passage from The Golden Bowl. I was so enamored with the passage that I began buying James novels as I came across them over the subsequent years. At this point, I've only read The Ambassadors (which I didn't like) and The Bostonians (which I did). It's time to give another of his works a try. 

2.  A 20th century classic: The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922) - Completed April 2018 I've been a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald since I read The Great Gatsby back when I was a sophomore in high school. I read my second Fitzgerald novel, This Side of Paradise, in 2016, and was a little underwhelmed. I'm still interested in reading more from him, however, so I decided to give this book a try.

3.  A classic by a woman author: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814) - Completed September 2018 I eventually want to read all of Jane Austen's novels and review them here on the blog. I've read Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice and Emma, but that was before my blogging days. I'll eventually reread them, so I can write a bit about them here. For now, I decided to try an Austen novel that I haven't read yet for this category.

4.  A classic in translation: Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rølvaag (1924-1925) - Completed June 2018 I picked up this novel years ago when the bookstore at my local mall was going out of business. Everything was half-price and the selection was already pretty picked over, but Giants in the Earth was there. I had never heard of it before, but the description on the back sounded interesting. Little did I know that this Norwegian classic would come in handy over a decade later when I needed a translated novel for a reading challenge.

5. A children's classic: Heidi by Johanna Spyri (1881) - Completed February 2018 I have vague memories of seeing the Shirley Temple movie version of this classic when I was a kid. I think I might have seen another version televised on the Disney channel too. I remember the story as being one of those classic, sweet tales for girls, like Anne of Green Gables or Pollyanna. I have a soft spot for books like those, so I want to give this one a try and see how it stacks up.

6.  A classic crime story: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939) - Completed November 2018 I was initially thinking of reading a Sherlock Holmes story for this prompt, but then I remembered that I purchased And Then There Were None on my Kindle when it was on sale for $2 on Amazon a while back. I've been meaning to read a Christie novel ever since Murder on the Orient Express came out in the theaters. This will be my first book by her.

7. A classic travel or journey narrative: Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (1873) - Completed January 2018 For the past two years, I've started my reading with a Jules Verne novel. In 2016 I explored the depths of the ocean with Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In 2017 I glimpsed what lay under the earth's surface with Professor Lidenbrock in Journey to the Center of the Earth. For 2018, I'm going to continue the adventure with a trip around the world with Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days.  

8. A classic with a single-word title: Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854) - Completed October 2018 My life is going to drastically change in 2018. In the fall, I will be leaving Florida, the place I've lived for all of my adult life, and moving to Connecticut. My husband has been offered a professorship at a university there, so we will be packing up and moving across the country. While I'm excited to take this step forward, I'm nervous to leave everything I know behind. I'm hoping to find some comfort in the pages of Walden, a book written by a man who left his life behind for a temporary home in the wilderness. Thoreau's work is an exploration of personal independence and self-reliance, and I'm hoping his wisdom will help me make this massive adjustment in my own life. As a bonus, Walden Pond is in Massachusetts. Living in Connecticut means that it would be easy to go visit the spot he wrote this in and see it for myself. 

9. A classic with a color in the title: The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes (1934) Completed February 2018 Last year, when I was assembling my Classics Club reading list, I purposefully sought out works by authors of color. One of the books that kept popping up was The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes. This short story collection is among his best known works, but I had never heard of it before. It is supposedly a pessimistic and sarcastic look at race relations in the 1930s. I thought it sounded interesting, so I ended up putting it on my list. It suits this category perfectly, so I'm going to give it a shot this year.

10. A classic by an author that's new to you: Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959) Completed March 2018 I was always a reader as a child, but when I was in high school, my love for the classics exploded. When I was old enough to work a part-time job and had my own spending money for the first time in my life, I started buying up classic novels like they were going out of style. I wanted to establish my own little library, so I started looking around for book lists to guide my purchases. I settled on trying to buy all of the books that Sparknotes had reading guides for, figuring that this would give me a wide range of classics to read and ensure that there would be free resources available to help me understand them if I got lost. Alas, Babylon was the first book I bought off the list. I have no idea what it's about and have never read anything else by Pat Frank before. making this a great choice for this category.

11. A classic that scares you: Ulysses by James Joyce (1922) Completed December 2018 This novel is considered to be one of the best ever written, but it is legendary for its difficulty. I've always known that I wanted to read it one day, but I am concerned that I won't understand a word of it. This prompt has presented me with the perfect opportunity to give it a shot. I've got one thing going for me - this novel draws a lot of parallels to The Odyssey, and I read that book earlier this year. I'm as prepared now as I ever will be.

12. Re-read a favorite classic: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) Completed November 2018 The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel. It touches my heart in a way that I have difficulty explaining to people. It's been a few years since I've read it, and I would like to get a review for it up on the blog. This is the perfect opportunity.

I spent more time this year making my list, and I tried to come up with selections that are meaningful to me. I'm looking forward to spending another year learning about literature and exploring classic novels.

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman was the last book I chose to bring home out of the giant shipment of books I ordered for my school this year. It was sandwiched into a set of books I bought from Scholastic that centered around diverse characters and stories. I probably wouldn't have paid any special attention to it at all if it weren't for a remark that another teacher made to me. When we pulled this slim little volume out of the box it came in, she remarked, "Oh, we used to teach this book at my last school! This is a great book." Of course, her words made me stick one of these on my desk to bring home and read later. I ended up being quite glad that she said something, because this was a really nice story.

The plot concerns the development of a community garden in a rough neighborhood in Cleveland. The story begins with the perspective of a young Vietnamese girl who decides to plant a handful of lima bean seeds in a vacant lot near her apartment building. The seeds are to honor the memory of her father, who passed away before she was born. Unbeknownst to her, some neighbors see her planting and watering her tiny garden and decide to join in and plant gardens of their own. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different person who comes to plant something. Over time, the vacant lot is transformed from a smelly, rat-infested dumping ground into a lush and beautiful garden, with plants from many different cultures represented. The people who participate in the garden become more lush and beautiful too, with new friendships and a sense of community spirit blossoming right alongside the flowers and vegetables.

One of the strengths of this novel is its structure. Each of the book's thirteen chapters are narrated by someone different, and while the characters sometimes mention seeing or speaking to each other, each chapter is its own story. The narrators come from varied backgrounds and bring very different perspectives to the tale. They are separated from each other by age, race, financial status, county of origin and more. We only get a little bit of each person's history, as most chapters are only 4-5 pages long, but what we are given works beautifully to show how a group of people working together can bring positive change to their community. The short, constantly shifting perspective of the story leaves you wanting more, but in a good way, because you come to root for the characters to be okay and for the garden to be a success.

I was engaged in each of the narrators' stories, but the one that stuck in my mind the most was Sae Young's. Sae Young is a Korean woman who immigrated to America to run a dry cleaning business with her husband. Her husband ended up passing away from a heart attack when he was 37, leaving Sae to run the business on her own. She explains that she did fine by herself until her business was robbed one afternoon. The burglars beat Sae quite badly and made off with the cash she had on hand. The attack left her afraid to leave her apartment for nearly two years. Over time, she began venturing outside again and came across the garden. She felt an instant attraction to it and decided to plant her own section She grows the hot peppers she used to eat in Korea and begins to make some friends. The garden helps her come out of her shell and begin to feel like a part of a community again. This story, told in Sae's broken English, really touched me. It was beautifully told and illustrated perfectly how a project like a garden can help bring all different sorts of people together. I would venture to say that everyone who picks up this novel will feel a special connection to at least one of the narrators.

The overall message of the story is simple, and Seedfolks delivers that message in a skillful way. The idea that people are stronger together than they are separated and that we all have something to offer each other if we come together with kindness are lessons that have been repeated across many different novels. What makes this one unique is that it lets the many voices of the people coming together speak for themselves. Blending this narrative structure with the symbolic imagery of nurturing a garden raised this story to a level of thoughtfulness and soul not often found in middle grades fiction. This was a terrific little read, and one that I won't be forgetting any time soon.

Total Books Read in 2017: 79

Monday, December 25, 2017

Terror at Bottle Creek by Watt Key

Terror at Bottle Creek is another book from the order I placed for my language arts department to refresh their classroom libraries this year. This book was named one of our Sunshine State Readers for 2017, which means that a panel of children's librarians selected this novel as one of the best of the year for middle grades readers. I decided to read it myself based on the recommendation of the media specialist at my school. She loved it, and she is one of the world's best humans, so I gave it a shot.

The plot concerns thirteen-year-old Cort, who lives on the Alabama coast. He assists his dad as a river guide, taking tourists out into the swamps surrounding their houseboat to hunt gators and wild pigs. As the novel begins, his town is hunkering down in preparation for a big hurricane. Cort has been through hurricanes before, but this time feels a little different to him. His mother has recently left him and his father and moved into her own home nearby. His father is crushed by her absence, and spends most of his free time over at her new residence, trying to convince her to return back home. As a result, their hurricane preparations are rushed and incomplete. This leaves Cort feeling very unsettled.

As the storm makes landfall, Cort's father decides to go and check on Cort's mother. He leaves his son at a neighbor's house, promising to return before the storm hits their area. When he doesn't return in a timely manner, Cort is left to deal with the storm on his own. A series of mishaps leads to him ending up stranded outside at Bottle Creek, along with his neighborhood friend Liza and her little sister Francie. As the hurricane batters the Alabama river, the trio must deal with treacherous floodwaters, dangerous animals, and falling debris in order to survive and try to make their way back home.

This was a very quick read, and a fairly entertaining one too. It started off a bit slow, but once the hurricane made landfall, the action didn't let up until the conclusion of the novel. This is a straight up survival story, with most of the narration spent describing action scenes. It's the kind of book that kids who say they don't like to read will probably love, because it is so suspenseful and plot-driven. It reminded me a little bit of Hatchet while I was reading, but it was much faster-paced. The action only covers a few days, and things move very quickly.

While this novel was great for young readers, it's not so great for adults. I did enjoy it, but it was shallow, simplistic, and clearly meant for a young audience. I can hardly fault the novel for that, because it is perfect for the age group it is advertised for-- it's just not one of those books with a lot of crossover appeal.There are lessons in its pages about bravery, family, and the randomness of mother nature, but the main focus is clearly on Cort's survival. Any more intellectual questions that it raises are secondary. In spite of this, I'm actually very glad I still read it, because I know I will be recommending this one again and again to students who struggle with reading for pleasure. Terror at Bottle Creek is a solid choice for middle grades readers, and anyone with kids who claim they "don't like to read" would do well to pick it up.

Total Books Read in 2017: 78

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Sometimes we aren't really supposed to be the way we are. It's not good for us. And people don't like it. You've got to change. You've got to try harder and do deep breathing and maybe one day take pills and learn tricks so you can pretend to be like other people. Normal people. But maybe...all those other people were broken too in their own ways. Maybe we all spent too much time pretending we weren't.

I'm the language arts department head at my school, which means that I am responsible for spending our reading budget on new books for our classroom libraries. It's a job I was born to do, basically. This year, The Nest, by Kenneth Oppel, was one of the books that I chose. When it arrived this week, I was instantly attracted to the cool cover design and the mysterious blurb on the back. With all of my scheduled reading finished for December, I decided to give this one a try.

The plot of The Nest follows a young boy named Steve. Steve lives with his parents, his younger sister Nicole, and his brand new baby brother Theo. Theo was born with a genetic disorder, and is frequently in and out of the hospital. It's uncertain as to whether he will survive his infancy, and even more uncertain as to how high-functioning he will be if he does survive. To cope with the anxiety he feels about his baby brother, Steve begins having a series of elaborate dreams about a sentient wasp queen. The queen promises to fix Theo, if only Steve will help her. Steve initially agrees to help, half-believing that he is only dreaming and his answer doesn't matter anyway.

As time moves forward however, Steve begins to confuse his dreams with reality. He becomes unsure as to what's real and what's only in his head. His dreams of the wasp queen become increasingly more vivid as well, and he begins to suspect her intentions in helping his brother. She eventually reveals that she means to fix Theo by swapping him with a new, perfect baby that her wasp drones are building in their hive. Believing now that the dreams are true, and horrified at the prospect of losing his real little brother, Steve takes back his initial promise to help, which angers the queen. She threatens to use her army of drones to replace Theo without Steve's help, which thrusts them both into a final confrontation blending dreams and reality together in strange ways.

I honestly didn't expect much from this book, but I ended up being blown away by how creative it was. I was kept on my toes the whole time I was reading, always second-guessing myself about which parts of Steven's story were real and which were just dreams or hallucinations. Steve is characterized as a kid with some issues. He is a sensitive boy, and struggles with anxiety, phobias, and some compulsive behaviors. He is a bit of a hypochondriac as well, and is afraid of the wasps (real ones) than plague his neighborhood every year. By using a narrator that is inherently unreliable, and tying that narrator's fears into things that are really going on in his life, Oppel is able to keep the reader confused and engaged in the story. I would read a chapter and think, "okay, this kid is just hallucinating," then read the next chapter and think, "wait, at least some of this was real..." It was actually very cool. Even at the end of the novel, after the final conflict occurs, Oppel includes some story elements that cast doubt over what actually happened.

I really enjoyed the themes present in this novel as well, especially the exploration of what perfection means to people. Humans naturally strive for perfection, and The Nest asks interesting questions about what we would be willing to sacrifice to achieve it. When Steve is presented with the idea of replacing Theo with a perfect baby, he is sorely tempted to go along with it at first. He thinks about how much happier and less worried his family would be with a healthy baby. He thinks about how much heartache he could save everyone if Theo weren't so sick all the time. The wasp queen also offers to fix Steve as well, promising that she will remove his fears and anxiety if he agrees to swap Theo with the perfect baby. Steve longs to fit in with his peers and become "normal," so this offer strikes right at his weak point. He eventually comes to realize that he loves his brother, illnesses and all, and wouldn't want to swap him for a perfect child. He also comes to realize that everyone is flawed in their own way. This was a nice message, and it was delivered without being overly preachy or sentimental.

It only took me a few hours to finish The Nest, and I'm finding myself still turning events from it over in my mind. I'm still not sure how many of the events in it were real, and it's fun to try and figure out the specifics. This novel was extremely creative and surprisingly good, and I'm very glad to have picked it up. Those who enjoy quirky, surreal reads would do well to give this one a try.

Total Books Read in 2017: 77

Thursday, December 21, 2017

These Gentle Wounds by Helene Dunbar

I'm pretty sure I received These Gentle Wounds as a Christmas gift a few years ago. I'm not 100% sure on that, but I feel like I remember receiving this one as part of a big stack of could've been my birthday too, now that I'm thinking about it. It's nice to have so many books to read that you can't remember where some of them came from.

Anyway, this novel made its way to my shelves in one way or another a few years ago. It has great reviews on Goodreads, so I thought it would be a nice way to hit my reading goal for the year - this is my 76th book read in 2017. I'm officially one book ahead of where I ended up last year, and December's not even over yet. Not too shabby.

The plot of These Gentle Wounds follows fifteen-year-old Gordie Allen. At the novel's start, Gordie is revealed to be struggling with PTSD in the wake of a terrible family tragedy that he experienced a few years prior. He is in a lot of pain and is plagued with flashbacks. He has to fight to control muscle twitches and deal with a lack of appetite, as well suffer through recurring nightmares. He is able to cope with the help of his older half-brother Kevin, who calms him down when he is having an episode and watches over him at school. They are very close, so Gordie doesn't even want to think about what will happen when Kevin goes off to college in a year.

As time moves forward, Gordie encounters new challenges in his sophomore year of high school. He meets a new girl in one of his classes named Sarah that he feels a strong connection with. Being with her helps him to feel safe and more normal, and he falls for her quickly. Before long, he's wrapped up in his first romantic relationship-- a turn of events which both excites and confuses him. He begins to feel some hope and happiness for the first time in a while.

This new beginning is jeopardized, however, when Gordie's biological father reappears and demands visitation rights. His father is abusive and incredibly cruel, and his presence threatens to undo the progress Gordie has made since the tragedy occurred. As he struggles to deal with seeing his father again, he must face some of his deepest fears, confront his difficult past, and learn how to advocate for himself and for others.

What These Gentle Wounds did very well was get inside the head of someone suffering from PTSD. Gordie's narration was genuine and well-written. I could feel his pain throughout my reading and sympathize with his issues. He is a character that you want to see succeed and face his demons, and it was very easy to root for him and become invested in the plot. His story gave me greater insight into what those suffering from PTSD have to deal with.

Gordie's relationship with his brother Kevin was another high point in the novel. It was nice to see such a strong and supportive familial bond between the two boys. Kevin wasn't perfect in his caretaking; he was prone to outbursts of intense anger and was struggling with his own difficult past while he was trying to look out for his brother. This made him feel realistic as well. Both boys were just trying to do the best they could in a screwed up world, which is a feeling most readers, including myself, can relate too.

I did have a few small issues with the book, one of which was Gordie's girlfriend, Sarah. While I thought their burgeoning relationship was very sweet, I felt like her endless patience and understanding for Gordie's issues was a bit unrealistic. She was too good at helping him feel comfortable with her. It felt like she was bringing the techniques of a therapist to her interactions with him instead of speaking to him like a teenage girl that just met him would. This is a minor criticism though, and it didn't really impact my overall enjoyment of the story. It was actually nice to sidestep the typical boyfriend/girlfriend drama that often fills the pages of young adult fiction.

Another issue I had was that the plot moved a bit slowly at times. While this was a short novel, it didn't go by quickly for me. I kept getting distracted and taking breaks from it. I never felt like the story was weak or boring, but it wasn't always as engaging as I would have liked.

However, between its likeable protagonist and its realistic look at PTSD, I ended up enjoying These Gentle Wounds. While this didn't capture my interest as much as my favorites in this genre, I still thought it was a great read and a worthy choice to round out my goal of reading 76 books this year. This is one novel that I won't hesitate to recommend for my students that enjoy realistic fiction.

Total Books Read in 2017: 76

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ana Lavender by Leslye Walton

*This review will contain spoilers*

I can't remember when or where I purchased The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. All I know for sure is that this one has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I picked it up this month as part of my quest to power through some of the young adult novels I have piled up in my room. I'm sure that the beautifully designed cover was what drew me to it in the first place. In person, the edges of the feather illustration glimmer and shine, making for a very pretty image. The lyrical and unusual title is intriguing as well. The inside flap promises a magical realism tale about a girl born with the wings of a bird. That sounded pretty interesting to me, so I started reading expecting something special and quirky. What I ended up with was disappointingly common and ugly.

The story is narrated by a young girl named Ava Lavender, but the story is actually a generational tale about her entire family. It begins by describing the life of her great-grandmother, Maman Roux, then continues on to describe her grandmother Emilienne's life, then her mother, Viviane's life. The stories of all three of these women are rife with tragedies, deaths, and broken hearts. The Roux women tend to be unlucky in love, with murders, cheating partners, and untimely deaths ending their romances prematurely. As a result, none of these women know how to love in the long term, and keep their hearts closely guarded. Their stories are full of what things could have been, if only death and heartache didn't follow them everywhere.

Elements of magic are woven throughout their lives as well. Emilienne is unusually perceptive, and able to see signs and symbols in the most mundane occurrences. She also can see the ghosts of her siblings, who each meet with tragic ends over the course of the story. They try to tell her things and she tries not to hear them. Viviane has a magically intense sense of smell, which allows her to do everything from forecast the coming of the seasons to tell when a woman is pregnant. These instances of magic are treated with a casual disregard by the characters. It's just how things are, and they accept them. The stories of Ava's ancestors take up about two thirds of the novel, with Ava herself being born around the halfway point.

Once the focus of the novel shifts to Ava, details of her own tragedy begin to emerge. She is part of a set of twins, each of whom are born different. Ava has a set of wings like a bird, and her brother Henry is autistic. In an effort to protect her children from a world she knows to be cruel and uncaring, Emilienne keeps them confined to their home most of the time. Ava doesn't really mind this, as she is very wary of how the outside world would react to her feathery appendages anyway. Eventually however, she grows into a teenager and becomes more curious about the world outside. She begins venturing out at night with her best and only friend from her neighborhood, Cardigan Cooper.

Her nocturnal wanderings are the innocent sorts of adventures teens typically get into. She meets up with other kids at a party hangout, drinks a little, and kisses a boy. Unbeknownst to her, she also manages to catch the attention of Nathaniel Sorrows, a man who recently moved onto her street to help an ailing relative. Nathaniel becomes obsessed with Ava and her wings after seeing her pass by his house a few times and begins laying plans to get her alone. His intentions for her are evil, and when he finally succeeds in drawing her in, Ava's turn with disaster comes.

I started off reading this happily enough - I didn't mind the generational storytelling, and there's no denying that Leslye Walton has a way with words. Ava's narration is written like a fairy tale. It has an old-fashioned feel to it that makes you comfortable, like how you would feel snuggled up in bed, being read to as a child. The magical elements only furthered this feeling. Incredible events, like a girl turning into a bird or a ghost trying to send someone a message are treated as such commonplace occurrences that you come to regard them as common as well and truly fall into the setting. I had a little trouble discerning what the overall plot would be at first, and was puzzled by how little Ava was in the book, but I didn't mind that so much when I was having fun exploring the strange world that Walton created.

My patience started to run out as I got to the tragedies. All of the Roux women in the story suffer terribly at the hands of men. Their hearts are broken irrevocably and they don't function normally in the world afterwards. I quickly became frustrated at how the women in the story were so weak, pining away after lost loves instead of actually living their lives. As the plot meandered on from sorrow to sorrow, I started getting confused about which bad thing was happening to which woman. Lots of extra backstory passages for minor characters started showing up too, further confusing matters.I found myself putting this book down a lot to do little things like check Facebook or read my email. I had trouble staying engaged without a clear plot to follow, and it wasn't enjoyable to read about so many troubling events in a row. Magic without whimsy or wonder is an odd combination, and one that I found out that I don't really care for.

When Ava and Nathaniel Sorrows finally became the focus of the story, I assumed that I would get a clearer picture of what the overall plot of the novel was supposed to be, but I found that I still wasn't able to figure it out. The sorrows for Emilienne and Viviane kept coming, and Ava's story remained a bit vague. Walton provided plenty of foreshadowing to let you know that something bad was going to happen to her, but I still felt like the story was scattered, and that not enough attention was paid to the girl who was supposed to be the main character.

Eventually, I made it to the end of the story, and its brutality and ugliness stunned me. My little criticisms about pacing, clarity, and cohesiveness fell away and were replaced by the disgust and horror I felt at what happened to Ava. Nathaniel finally succeeds in luring Ava into his home, where he brutally rapes her and hacks off her wings with an axe. He very nearly kills her. This is all described in unflinching detail. It was terrible and difficult to read. Compared to the lyrical storytelling of the previous 250 pages, this was a slap in the face, and it felt wrong. I detest when sexual violence is used as a plot point. This was not necessary to the story or appropriate for this novel.

I've read several teen novels that dealt with sexual violence in thoughtful and careful ways. This was not one of them. This was merely violence for the sake of violence. Its only function was to continue the run of broken hearts in the Roux family by showing another man damaging another one of their women, this time in the most intense and destructive way possible. There are a few pages at the very end of the novel showing Ava beginning to heal from the attack and move on, but as so little time was spent on Ava's development throughout the story, those pages don't feel genuine or rewarding to read. It was a terrible, terrible ending. It's not really "strange and beautiful" for a woman to be raped. It's depressingly common.

When I make it to the end of a novel I don't really care for, I can generally find something positive to say about it. I am usually happy to have read it, even if the best thing I can say is that I got to try something new. I'm having trouble doing that in the case of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. I don't know who this was written for. Its plot is meandering and scattered, its treatment of women is less than ideal, and it features graphic sexual violence. It's meant to be for young adults, but I can't put this in my classroom library. I wouldn't want my child to read it. I'm not glad I read it. Aside from some pretty wording, this was a miss for me. Disturbingly, I am in the small minority of readers with this opinion. This book has phenomenal reviews on Goodreads. I don't get it.  

There is one positive in all this however- this was my last read for the TBR 2017 Challenge. I've officially read 60 books I'd had sitting on my shelf since last year.

Challenge Tally
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 60/60 - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2017: 75

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Firecracker by David Iserson

After reading a bunch of rather maudlin teen fiction books in a row, I was ready for a change in tone. Luckily, Firecracker, by David Iserson was next on my to-read pile. I picked up this book at a Target a while back on impulse. The cool cover design drew me in, and then the line about the author on the front sealed the deal. It stated that Iserson was a writer for television comedies, including New Girl and SNL, two shows that I really like. I was hoping that this book would contain a lot of the same smart humor. Ready to relax and laugh, I gave it a shot this week.

Firecracker is about a wealthy teenager named Astrid Krieger. Astrid is not like other young adult fiction heroines. She's cynical, spoiled, self-centered, and only values other people for what they can do for her. She's not one to follow rules either. Her past is checkered with arrests for crimes ranging from robbery to attempting to sell her local police station to China. Her exploits are epic, and her family's immense wealth always shields her from facing true consequences for her actions.

At the beginning of the novel, Astrid is thrown out of her prestigious private school, Bristol Academy, in the wake of a cheating scandal. She admits to the cheating, but explains that far more people were involved in the situation than the school knows. She believes someone set her up to take the fall for the whole ordeal. She wants to figure out who the culprit is and pay them back, but this goal is complicated by her family's decision to make her attend public school as a sort of punishment for getting into trouble. All is not lost, however. She manages to make a deal with the dean of the academy that if she can turn over a new leaf and perform three acts of kindness for other people, she can earn her way back in to Bristol.

Astrid begins trying to perform her acts of kindness at her new public high school, but it turns out that doing good in the world isn't as easy as she hoped. She tries throwing money into some random situations, but it doesn't really work the way she expects it to. Simply put, she has no idea how to be nice to others. To make matters worse, she's finding that the kids at her new school don't care about her name or her family's wealth. She's used to people being automatically intimidated by her; now, many are openly hostile to her instead. She eventually meets two students named Noah and Lucy, and they become the closest thing to friends that she's ever had. They teach her how to function in her new world, and with their help, she sets off to finish her acts of kindness and get revenge on the person who sold her out.

Firecracker ended up being a very enjoyable read, and was a really nice change of pace from the dramatic, emotional stories I had been reading lately. It's strength, as one would expect given the background of its author, was in its humor. The story is narrated by Astrid herself, and while she is a tough character to like, her biting sense of humor is hilarious. I actually laughed out loud at several lines, which I'm not used to doing while reading. Her sarcasm helped draw me in to her character and like her in spite of her flaws. By the end of the novel, Astrid has definitely grown a little, but still retains her distinctive spice, which I thought was a nice touch. It wouldn't have been realistic for her to completely transform into a kind and caring person over the few months the story spans, but she ends her tale better than she was at the beginning of it. I found myself wishing that she could have become a bit more empathetic at the story's conclusion, but I can see why Iserson held back on that and kept her personality essentially the same - it's not that kind of book. Astrid's not meant to be perfect.

The plot of the novel, while fairly absurd, was also entertaining. Some things happen that would definitely not be possible in real life, but the absurdity was part of the story's charm. Astrid is a ridiculous person that makes ridiculous things happen around her, so it all seemed to fit together. This definitely isn't one of those stories that impresses you with its authenticity. It's one of those stories that you indulge in as a guilty pleasure, like watching teen dramas on CW. It lacks depth from time to time, but the ride it provides you with is still very enjoyable.

What I ended up appreciating about this book the most was how refreshingly different it was. There were no tears, no depression, and no "very special episode" style lessons to learn. Instead, Firecracker has an unapologetic heroine that doesn't put up with anyone's nonsense, sarcasm by the boatload, and a story full of funny twists and turns. This is definitely a novel that I can see my students falling in love with, especially those who may not consider themselves to be big readers. I'm happy to have gone on this particular adventure.   

Challenge Tally
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 59/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 74

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

I picked up The Sky is Everywhere a few years ago because Jandy Nelson's second novel, I'll Give You the Sun, is one of my favorite young adult titles of all time. I was hoping that I would fall in love with this story the same way I fell in love with the other one. As a result, I started reading with my expectations sky-high. I bet you can already tell where this is going, but first, a summary.

The story follows Lennie Walker, a high school student living in Northern California with her older sister Bailey, her grandmother, and her uncle. At the beginning of the novel, it is revealed that Bailey has unexpectedly died from a heart condition. This death absolutely devastates the family and throws Lennie into a deep depression. The girls had an extremely close relationship and Lennie doesn't really know how to function without her sister in her life. She can't fathom a future in which Bailey isn't there.

Lennie tries processing her grief through writing scraps of poetry about her sister and leaving them in random places around town. These poems are sprinkled throughout the novel and help to develop the depth of her grief. This practice helps her a little, but she is still hurting inside and stuck in a kind of living purgatory. It feels sad and disrespectful to move on with her life when her sister can't do the same. In her despair and confusion, she begins a physical relationship with her sister's boyfriend Toby, who is just as lost and depressed as she is. Far from providing comfort to her, this relationship feels like a monstrous betrayal to the memory of her sister. However, she can't seem to control herself around Toby, and is unable to give him up. She believes he is the only one who understands what she is going through, and is thus drawn to him.

To further complicate matters, Lennie also develops feeling for a new boy at her school named Joe Fontaine. Joe never knew Bailey, so the times they spend together aren't plagued by memories of her sister. His companionship helps to alleviate some of the heavy feelings she is struggling with. The pair soon fall into a deep, storybook kind of love with each other, but Lennie can't bring herself to let go of Toby. Her continued secret liaisons with him threaten to disrupt the relationship she has with Joe.

Sadness, guilt, confusion, and love swirl around in Lennie's head all at once. When Joe finally catches her with Toby and breaks up with her, she must find a way to sort out her feelings and put things right again. Learning to live with her grief and apologize to those she has wronged will be difficult and perhaps impossible, but Lennie is realizing that she needs to try if she ever wants to move on and live the life her sister would have wanted for her.

This book was beautifully written and I did enjoy it, but I struggled a bit with how sad it was. Lennie's grief is a palpable force in this novel, and pages and pages are spent on her despair. It was difficult to read. I usually like sad books, but this one was hard for me. It might have been a little too much. I stopped several times while reading and remarked on how bleak it was. Anyone who has ever lost someone they were particularly close to will probably have difficulties making it through the text. I don't think its emotional elements were necessarily a bad thing, but it definitely put me in a sad mood while reading.

Lennie's relationship with Toby also made me uncomfortable. I accept that grief can make people do rash things sometimes, but I found it unlikely that Toby, who is around 20 years old, would think fooling around with his dead girlfriend's 16 or 17 year old sister was remotely okay. There was a difference in power and agency between the pair that felt wrong.

The overall message of the story and its ending, however, were wonderful. I liked how Lennie ultimately processed her grief and came to terms with Bailey's death. I wish there had been a bit more to the plot, but what was there was interesting and felt genuine. I probably would have rated this novel higher if I had read it before I'll Give You the Sun. I went into this with my expectations too high. Knowing what Nelson is capable of achieving made me like this story a little less. Regardless, The Sky is Everywhere is a solid read. Sad, but solid. I'll definitely be interested in reading more works by this author in the future.

Challenge Tally
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 58/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 73