Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

With the end of January quickly approaching, I decided to tackle another book from my Back to the Classics Challenge list. For some reason, Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger was calling to me, so I decided to give it a shot. This book is also on my Classics Club list, so it's another opportunity for me to make more progress on that. I hadn't read any Salinger since I was assigned Catcher in the Rye back in high school. I liked that novel back then, so I went into reading Franny and Zooey with high hopes.

This book is split up into two sections, a short story called "Franny" and a novella called Zooey. Franny and Zooey are siblings in the Glass family, a fictional group consisting of a mother, father, and seven children. Salinger used these characters in some of his other stories as well, but this was my first introduction to the Glass brood. As it turns out, they are quite the quirky bunch.

"Franny" comes first in the collection. At the beginning of the short story, Franny Glass, an undergraduate college student, has traveled to see her boyfriend Lane at Yale University. As soon as she gets off the train, it is clear that something is wrong. She seems to be annoyed with nearly everything Lane says, doesn't eat the food she orders when they stop at a restaurant, and appears pale and sweaty. She eventually reveals that she's feeling extremely dissatisfied with what she sees as a lack of authenticity in the people and places around her. She's having an existential crisis and doesn't see much point in pursuing the academic and career goals she once had.

She also reveals that she's been coping with these feelings by turning to a religious book that instructs readers to "pray constantly" in order to attain spiritual enlightenment. She's been repeating a short prayer under her breath and in her head over and over in an attempt to reach this enlightened state. As her afternoon date wears on, she eventually faints and Lane takes her to a room to rest.

Zooey picks up soon after this incident. Franny has returned to her family home and set up camp on the couch. Her mother is hovering over her, trying to coax her back into being her normal self, but she isn't meeting with any success. Eventually, Zooey, Franny's elder brother, is enlisted to try and talk her out of her depression. The rest of the novella centers around his attempts to help. Zooey's tactics range from harshly calling out her behavior as selfish, to a much gentler phone call in which he conveys more optimistic ideas about religion and life goals.

This is a very short novel, and not much actually happens in it, but it is still somehow a brilliant read. Salinger's writing is clever and funny, and his characterizations of Franny and Zooey are excellent. The Glass family is pretentious, arrogant, and way too smart for their own good, but they also know this about themselves, try to temper it, and love each other in the meantime. A story full of arguments, depression, religious mania, and existential crises sounds like it would be quite heavy, but Franny and Zooey is actually rather heartwarming. It's a quick read too; it only took me a few hours to finish it. 

As I'm not religious myself, I don't always enjoy books with religious themes. For this one, however, it didn't bother me. The novel portrays a rather nice interpretation of religion by the end, isn't remotely preachy, and includes ideas from several different religious texts throughout. Salinger stresses the idea that doing your best, even when no one is watching or cares, is ultimately worth it, which is a message that resonates especially loudly with me.

Overall, I thought Franny and Zooey was a charming, clever, and engaging read. Salinger's writing was impressive and the characters were very unique. It was most definitely worth the little chunk of time it took to read. It's nice to discover a classic that feels meaningful, is easy to understand, and doesn't take ages to get through. I would like to check out more of Salinger's work in the future, and I should probably reread Catcher in the Rye as well. It's been too long! 

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2019 (a classic novella): 2/12 Books Read
Classics Club (#89 on my list): 37/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 8

Monday, January 28, 2019

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

I came across Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea when I was researching famous children's literature for my Classics Club list. I wanted to have a section dedicated to children's classics, and this novel kept popping up in my searches. I hadn't heard of the book before, but I had definitely heard good things about Le Guin, so I decided to give it a shot. It is definitely different from the other children's classics in that section of my list, which mainly consists of older stories like Heidi and Black Beauty, but I figured it would be nice to have some diversity. I got the book as a Christmas gift a few years ago. For some reason, it was calling to me this week, so I pulled it off my shelf and started in on it.

The plot concerns a young wizard named Ged who lives in a realm of magic and dragons called Earthsea. Born in the small island community of Gont, he has an unremarkable childhood until he starts to show an aptitude for magic. The village witch notices his skills, and begins his instruction in wizardry. Soon, however, he masters all of the basics that she can teach him and is sent away to study under a true wizard on a different island. He continues to learn and grow over the years, and eventually leaves his new teacher to learn at a school for wizards on the island of Roke.

As everything has come easily to Ged throughout his instruction in magic, he develops a prideful and arrogant attitude. One evening, while attempting to show off in front of one of his rivals at the school, he accidentally calls forth a demon from another realm into Earthsea. This shapeless, terrifying demon attempts to kill him, but is ultimately driven off into the night by the archmage of the school. The confrontation kills the archmage, maims Ged, and changes the course of his life forever.

From that moment forward, Ged must live with the knowledge that he has not only loosed an unspeakable and terrifying evil into the world, but that the evil he called forth is bound to him, and will pursue him until he is able to kill him. Not content to just hide away somewhere, Ged must track the demon down and figure out how to destroy it, before it can do any more serious damage to Earthsea. His journey will take him far and teach him many things about his world, his relationships, and even himself.

I admit that when I first started in on the novel, I wan't into it. The narration style is a bit impersonal - it's meant to mirror how folktales or myths are told, with more of an emphasis on a character's deeds and actions than on their thoughts. For that reason, I found the start to be a bit slow and boring. I didn't feel like I was really getting to know the characters, and Ged had a haughty, unlikable personality. However, after Ged accidentally calls that demon into the world, I started to fall in love. His journey to undo his mistake is exciting, creative, and causes him to become more humble and grow. All of a sudden, I started to feel bad for him and cheer him onward in his quest.

As I read on, I also came to appreciate Le Guin's world-building. Earthsea feels like a fully-realized universe, with it's own history, legends, and geography. The magic system is very interesting as well. It is based on language and "true" names rather than wands and spells. Ged has to spend hours studying the original, dead language of his country in order to perform magic, which I thought was pretty unique. This is one of those fantasies where you truly feel like you're in another world while reading. Plus, there are dragons, and they way Le Guin portrays them makes them intriguing and menacing.

A Wizard of Earthsea reminded me a bit of The Chronicles of Narnia, with it's classic storytelling feel and fantastical universe. I wish I had found this story when I was a kid. It's interesting and clever and I think it would have been a big part of my childhood if I had known about it back in the 90s. After finishing the book, I immediately went online and purchased the rest of the series, which is something I haven't done in a long time. There are six books in the Earthsea Cycle, so I have a whole lot of time left to spend in Le Guin's universe, and I'm actually pretty excited for it. It's been a while since I really got into a fantasy series. I'm so glad that I randomly placed this onto my Classics Club list! It's nice to discover new favorites.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#29 on my list): 36/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 7

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I don't read a whole lot of memoirs. This is probably related to the fact that there aren't a whole lot of public figures that I feel particularly connected to or interested in. I have my own little collection of personal heroes, of course, but I generally don't seek out books about them. Michelle Obama, however, is different. Over the years she was in the White House, I developed a deep and abiding admiration for her. I agreed with her policy positions and her relentless optimism. I looked up to her intelligence and determination. I was also definitely a little bit jealous of her successes. When her memoir was released, I picked it up right away.

There wasn't enough space on my bookshelf for Becoming to fit in neatly (moving to Connecticut meant we had to downsize on the amount of bookshelves we owned), so I placed it on the front edge of an already packed shelf, facing out. Over the next few months, Michelle Obama's face would be beaming out at me whenever I walked by my books, reminding me that I hadn't read her story yet. When I was assembling my list of novels I finally wanted to get to in 2019, this daily reminder made Becoming an easy choice to include.

Becoming recounts the story of Michelle Obama's life so far, from her childhood in Chicago's Southside, to her young adulthood as a successful lawyer, to her tenure as First Lady of the United States. The book is divided into three sections. In the first, she explains how her early life was shaped by family, love, and a firm commitment to her studies. She recounts her mother's patient parenting and her father's relentless work ethic, and how these factors helped her to stay on a straight path and excel in her studies. Her family didn't have a lot of wealth financially, but they were rich in the kind of things that money can't buy-love, kindness, and respect. Those influences led her all the way to Princeton and Harvard as she earned her law degree and began practicing.

The second section details her relationship with Barack Obama and the birth of her two daughters, Malia and Sasha. She discusses how she fell in love with Barack, their struggles with infertility, and the joy she experienced when her daughters eventually came along. She also spends time explaining all of the emotions she experienced as Barack began his meteoric climb to the White House. It's not easy to be the spouse of a famous politician, and it's doubly not easy to be the spouse of someone who has practically become a folk hero in his own time. It's all too easy to fade away into the background of a larger-than-life partner, and she had to deal with a lot of questions about finding her own voice in the situation, and making sure her girls got to have as normal and grounded of a childhood as possible.

The final section of the book, predictably, is about her experiences in the White House. Becoming First Lady of the United States was a life-altering experience, and she describes both the wonderful and not-so-wonderful aspects of it. She found great joy and purpose in traveling to distant countries, meeting foreign dignitaries, and working on meaningful community projects. She was less enthused about being under constant scrutiny from the press, being unable to come and go as she pleased, and the frequent threats from extremists against her husband's life. The information contained here is fascinating and gives readers an inside view of what being First Lady is like. The novel ends with the beginning of Trump' presidency, an event that Obama describes as gut-wrenching. Still, in spite of the disappointing outcome of the election, she ends on hope, ultimately delivering a message encouraging people to come together and support one another.

This book was phenomenal and it deserves all the hype surrounding it. Obama's writing is beautiful and thoughtful, and the stories she has to tell, even the simple ones of her childhood in Chicago, are very engaging. I learned a lot about the background of many events I recognized from the news, and a lot of new facts about the White House too. Her tone is perfect throughout; this is a woman who has achieved extraordinary things, but the way she conveys everything feels down-to-earth and relatable. I was constantly making connections as I read, and thinking, "that's just how I would react here," or, "I know exactly how she felt." Her warm personality shines through on each page. Reading this truly feels like having a conversation with a friend.

Aside from the factual information about the people, places, and events in her life, Obama's descriptions of her feelings were extremely well-written. She perfectly captured the doubts, worries, joys, and triumphs she felt throughout the years, and her honesty was very compelling. Similarly, the way she explained her beliefs was inspiring. Her fierce commitment helping others had me wanting to go out and volunteer somewhere. Memoirs are usually inspirational at some level (assuming you are reading about a person you admire), but this one felt more inspiring than usual. It was thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.

I was a fan of Michelle Obama before I read Becoming. I'm an even bigger fan now. Anyone with even a passing interest in the Obamas would do well to pick this up. At 421 pages of pretty small print, this is a lengthy read, but the hours melted away for me once I started in on it. I finished it in just a few days and was sad it was over. There's not many memoirs I can say something like that about. I'm very happy to have finally read it. Now I need to find it a place of honor on my shelf - somewhere where it actually fits this time.      

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 3/6 Books Read

Total Books Read in 2019: 6

Monday, January 21, 2019

Night by Elie Wiesel

In my quest to clear more books off my Classics Club list, I decided to read Night by Elie Wiesel next. I've been meaning to read this for quite a long time. I had the honor of actually listening to Wiesel speak many years ago at my college, and though the details of what he said have slipped away by now, the impression he made on me hasn't. He was an extremely engaging speaker, and there was such a gravity to him that I could feel his importance radiating throughout the auditorium. I was very interested in reading his work after that night. Being a stressed out English major, however, I didn't get around to it back then. So, I decided to remedy that and read it now.

Night is Wiesel's record of his experiences during the Holocaust. In 1944, he and his family were taken from their home in Transylvania to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In the camp, Wiesel had to endure horrors beyond what most of us can imagine as he tried to protect himself and his father against death at the hands of the Nazis. He describes with a disturbing frankness how he and countless others were starved, beaten, and abused during their time there. He also describes his struggle with his faith throughout the horrifying ordeal, and explains how he came to reject one of his most important childhood beliefs, that God was a kind and merciful being. He could no longer believe such an idea in the face of the death and torture he was seeing every day.

Eventually, as the WWII neared its end, Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald, where he had been force-marched to with the rest of his camp as the Russian army closed in on Auschwitz. The narrative ends with him looking at himself in a mirror at a hospital after he was freed, and no longer recognizing the person staring back at him. His story is equal parts moving and horrific, and stands as an important record of the atrocities of the Holocaust.

This is a very slim volume, but it is not an easy read. Wiesel's prose is simple, but still beautiful and profoundly sad. His descriptions of the terror of his friends and family and the cruelty of the Nazis is difficult to make it through. At the same time, it is profoundly important that everyone reads it. It is imperative that no one ever forgets what happened during the Holocaust. To do so would be to forget the hundreds of thousands of people who suffered and died in the genocide. Every time I read something about this time period, it feels unbelievable that something this horrific could actually happen. It is difficult to comprehend that people could behave this way towards other human beings. However, it did happen and people did behave in those unimaginable ways, and it is our duty to remember it and to help ensure it doesn't happen again. This is why Wiesel wrote his narrative; he wanted to keep the memory of that time alive, and to make sure that people understand why remaining silent when they see such injustice is inexcusable.

Night is undeniably a masterpiece. It won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and is often incorporated into school curriculum as a teaching tool. While it is an emotionally challenging read, I would recommend it to everyone. It is an indispensable piece of our historical record and an important warning against the tragedies that come from racism and hatred. We must all be reminded of our past in order to protect our future. As Wiesel wisely stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere."

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#99 on my list): 35/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 5

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I would describe myself as a low-key John Green fan. I've read all of his books; some of them I have liked (Paper Towns, The Fault in Our Stars), and some of them I haven't (An Abundance of Katherines, Will Grayson, Will Grayson). Still, when Turtles All the Way Down came out in 2017, I was excited. It had been awhile since his last book, and I was interested to see what he would come up with next. When the novel came out, I bought it right away, and then, you know, I never got around to reading it. Accordingly, I put it on my Finally in 2019 list, since I've been meaning to get to it for a few years now.

The plot is a bit difficult to describe, but I'll give it a shot. The story follows sixteen-year-old Aza Holmes, a high school student living in Indianapolis. Her father passed away a few years prior, and she is still grieving the loss. She is also struggling with a pretty serious anxiety disorder, and has a fixation on germs and cleanliness, specifically gut bacteria. Her obsessive thoughts about what she's eating, touching, etc. and how those things might catapult her into a deadly illness frequently interrupt her life. She has been prescribed medication and is seeing a psychiatrist about these issues, but she only takes her medicine sometimes and worries constantly about how the medication changes her thoughts.

Her life takes a turn when she reunites with an old childhood friend of hers, Davis Pickett. Pickett's father, under investigation for fraud and bribery, has recently disappeared. He fled his home on the eve of him being arrested, leaving Pickett and his little brother, Noah, behind. The police are offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to his capture. Aza's best friend, Daisy, sees the situation as an opportunity to do a little amateur sleuthing and make some money. Knowing that Aza knew Pickett when they were kids, she convinces her to go visit him so they can search for clues as to the whereabouts of his father.

The connection between Aza and Pickett is instant, and soon she is trying to navigate having a romantic relationship alongside of her anxiety disorder. She feels the beginnings of love for Pickett, but is unable to hold hands or kiss without having intrusive thoughts about the bacteria she might be picking up. Her stress over the situation, and the friction that starts to creep into all of her relationships because of it, leads her down a dark spiral that she must try to find her way out of.

It's a shame that I took so long to read this novel, because for me, this is John Green's best work. Aza's character is well developed and her anxiety is rendered perfectly on the page. Her voice feels accurate; her obsessive thoughts feel true. This is a very realistic portrayal of mental illness. The other story elements, like the romantic relationship with Pickett and the search for Pickett's missing father, provide a great backdrop to the story and don't take away from the main focus, which is Aza's mental health and her struggle to cope with it. I raced through this novel in just two days, and I was completely engaged from page one.

A lot of the elements that usually irk me in a John Green novel were definitely toned down here. The snark wasn't overdone, and while the teen characters were still impossibly clever at times, it wasn't overwhelming to me. Perhaps most importantly, there wasn't a manic pixie dream girl to take over the plot and bewitch the protagonist. The story is told from Aza's point of view, and her quirks are far from charming. The fact that Pickett likes her in spite of them was a nice change. Overall, I thought this work felt mature, and I appreciated the underlying message about how all we can do is move forward through the messy imperfections in our lives.

While the book was definitely engaging throughout, I have to make a special mention of the ending. I really like the way Green chose to end this story. It was realistic, a bit sad, and a bit hopeful too. He works a small piece of Aza's future into the narrative, and I really enjoyed his choice to do so there. It was one of the better endings to a young adult book that I've read. 

Turtles All the Way Down is the second novel I have read in my Finally in 2019 Challenge, and it's another complete winner. I'm so happy that I'm starting off the year with a string of great books! Last year, I felt like I just didn't click with a lot of my choices, so it's been nice to really fall in love with some literature again. I'm hoping I can keep up this excitement throughout the whole year! 

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 2/6 Books Read

Total Books Read in 2019: 4

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

After reading The Mysterious Island at the beginning of the month, I was in the mood for another adventure story. I decided to go with Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. It's the 24th book on my Classics Club list, it's an adventure, and it wasn't too long, so I went with that. After the horrors of Ulysses, I find myself gravitating towards shorter books, for now.

The plot concerns a young Scottish man named David Balfour. At the beginning of the story, his father passes away and he sets out to seek his inheritance at the house of his uncle, the miserly Ebeneezer Balfour of Shaws. Once he gets to his uncle's home, however, things quickly turn sour. His uncle behaves in a strange and unfriendly manner, and within a few days, he arranges for him to be kidnapped, shanghaied, and sold into slavery. Not a touching family reunion, in other words.

David ends up on board a brig named the Covenant, where the rough crew abuses him and forces him to work as a cabin boy. They are destined for the shores of North Carolina, where David will be sold to a plantation. Poor weather, however, prevents them from making much headway in their journey, and they eventually collide with a smaller ship. The smaller ship is destroyed, and only one member of its crew survives. They take on this man onto their own ship, and after seeing that he has some gold on him, try to rob and murder him. Unfortunately for them, this man is none other than Alan Breck Stewart, famous Scottish soldier and Jacobite. He teams up with David, and the pair of them, after quite a bit of sword fighting, escape the ship and wash up on an inhospitable part of Scotland.

From this point forward, David and Alan have one mission - to make their way across Scotland into friendly territory so Alan can disappear and continue his part in the Jacobite Rebellion and David can return to his uncle and claim his rightful inheritance. Things are very sticky for them, however. After their escape from the Covenant, they have no money or supplies, Alan is wanted by the British government, and after being in the wrong place at the wrong time, they both end up being wanted for the murder of Colin Campbell of Glenure, a royal collections agent. To say the least, it's not an easy trip home for either of them.

This was a pretty fun story, but my enjoyment of it was slightly hampered by a lack of knowledge about Scottish history. The Jacobite Rebellion, Alan Breck Stewart, the murder of Colin Campbell, and numerous other events from its plot are all real events from history. Not knowing much about any of these things definitely meant that I was missing out on some of the quirks of the novel. I'm sure there were moments where I was supposed to be shocked at a person's identity, or chuckle at how reality and fiction mixed in certain events, and I totally missed out on those moments. I was really surprised at how historical this novel was. I wasn't expecting that at all.

Of course, even without knowing about the history of the time period, the story is still great fun and completely understandable. David is a likable character; he's young, naive, and principled, and it's very easy to cheer him on in all his daring escapes. Similarly, the friendship between him and Alan is a treat to watch evolve. Alan is quite charismatic, and becomes both mentor and friend to David throughout the novel. Realistically, they also get on each others' nerves during their journey, and that was quite funny to read about too. When they eventually part at the end of the story, I was surprised to find myself getting a little misty-eyed.

This is my third novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. I read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in college and Treasure Island years ago. Out of the three, this was probably my least favorite, but that's not to say that it was bad. I was a bit out of my depth with all of the historical inclusions, so I couldn't get as deep into the story as I could with his other novels. However, Kidnapped is one of those classic adventures that any fan of this genre will enjoy. It's a fun story with plenty of the charm you only get from reading an old story. I recommend giving it a shot (but maybe read about what the Jacobite Rebellion is first)!

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#24 on my list): 34/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 3

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I think that I am probably the very last young adult literature fan to read The Hate U Give. This book made a lot waves when it came out in 2017 and it won several awards. There was a movie adaptation made as well that's sitting at a 97% Freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Everyone loved it, everyone was talking about it, and somehow, I never picked it up. I definitely meant to, though. I bought it pretty close to when it first came out, stuck it on my bookshelf, and then never managed to actually read it. That's why this book is the very first one on my Finally in 2019 Challenge. After reading my customary Jules Verne novel to kick off the year, I decided to make The Hate U Give my second read.

 The novel follows sixteen-year-old Starr Carter, who at the start of the novel, explains that she feels like she's living two different lives. One life is her home life with her family. She lives in Garden Heights, a tough, inner-city neighborhood plagued by drug dealers and gangs. Despite the problems of the area, this is home for Starr. She lives with her father, an ex-gang leader that runs a small store in the neighborhood, her mother, who is a nurse at a local clinic, and her little brother, Sekani. Her second life is her school life with her friends. Her parents work hard to send her to an expensive prep-school in the suburbs, where she is one of only two black students. She feels like she has to act differently there, to avoid seeming "too black." She changes the way she speaks to fit in with her friends and teachers. She feels more comfortable with her boyfriend, Chris, but he is another white kid, and she still holds a bit of herself and her struggles back from him.

The action in the novel kicks off when Starr attends a Garden Heights party at the end of her spring break. After some violence breaks out at the party, she accepts a ride home from an old childhood friend named Khalil. She's always had a bit of a thing for him, but they've grown apart since she started attending her private school. On the way home, a policeman pulls them over for a broken taillight. During the traffic stop, the situation escalates. Khalil gives the police officer some attitude, and the officer orders him out of the car. When he ducks his head back in the car to see if Starr is okay, the officer shoots and kills him.

Khalil's death irrevocably changes Starr's life. She is devastated at his loss, angry at the actions of the police officer, and terrified to speak out about what happened. She is forced to confront a lot of uncomfortable truths about racism, police violence, and the problems in her community. Tired of the injustices she is seeing, Starr decides to stand up and speak out for Khalil, and her actions set of a chain of events that lead to a lot of changes for her friends and family. The Hate U Give is an honest look at how police brutality affects the black community and how persistence and activism are necessary to affect social change.

I was completely blown away by this book. What I first noticed when I started reading was how genuine it felt. This is author Angie Thomas's first novel, and it's a completely triumph. Starr's voice feels like a real teenager, and her feelings and pain leap right off the page. The language did take me a while to get used to. Starr speaks using Black English Vernacular, and getting into the rhythm of her words was a little bit difficult. There were a few terms I didn't understand too. Perhaps the whitest things I've ever done was look up what the phrase "gives me dap" meant (a handshake or fist bump, as it turns out). As I went deeper into the novel, however, I got used to the style and it wasn't an issue. In fact, it made the story feel more authentic.

The discussion around police violence was similarly well done. The feelings of Starr and her community are very well-articulated. The novel succeeds here in two ways; it is a mirror for young, black readers to be able to see a true discussion of this painful topic reflected in print, and it helps to explain some of the feelings behind movements like Black Lives Matter to readers that don't understand why movements like this are necessary. White readers might feel a bit uncomfortable with some of the discussion, but it is a necessary kind of discomfort. Thomas tells the truth in this novel, and she doesn't pull any punches. I felt like I came away from my reading with a better understanding of people like Starr and her family, who have to deal with injustices, big and small, every day.

Aside from its social importance, The Hate U Give is a great story as well. The pacing is good, the plot is consistently interesting, and there are quite a few exciting, suspenseful moments in its pages to keep readers engaged.The last third of the book is especially action-packed, as Khalil's murder becomes a major news headline and protests and riots start occurring in the streets of Starr's neighborhood. At 444 pages, this is a fairly long read, but it doesn't feel like it. I finished in just a few days and I know this story will be sticking with me for a long time. The closing paragraphs, in particular, are exceptional, and very memorable.

With quite a bit of language and violence, this is definitely a book for older teens, but I feel like everyone should pick it up. The Hate U Give is one of those books that everyone can learn from and benefit from. Part of the magic of reading is that it can teach us about the world and connect us with others, and this novel is one of the best vehicles for that that I have come across in a long time. I wish that it hadn't taken me so long to pick it up!

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 1/6 Books Read

Total Books Read in 2019: 2

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

For the past three years, I have kicked off my reading in the month of January with a Jules Verne novel. I never really intended to establish this as a tradition. I wasn't even a big Jules Verne fan when I started doing it. I just happened to start off my reading in 2016 with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and I thought it would be kind of fun to do Journey to the Center of the Earth as my first read in 2017. When 2018 rolled around, I figured that I might as well keep it going and tackle Around the World in Eighty Days for my first read. That novel ended up becoming a favorite for me, and I started to really appreciate the creativity and science in Verne's writing. Now that it's 2019, I can't imagine starting off the year any other way than with another classic Jules Verne adventure.

When it comes to Verne novels, most people have only heard of the three that I already read (myself included). Accordingly, I had to do a little digging around on Amazon to find another one. One title that kept popping up in my search was The Mysterious Island, so I went ahead and ordered it. Once it actually arrived, I was very surprised at the length. At nearly 600 pages, this would be the longest Verne novel I had read by far. I was more than a little concerned that his trademark scientific prose might run on and on and get a bit boring. Those lengthy scientific passages filled with Latin names and detailed theories are always my least favorite part of his books. However, as I was soon to find out, this is a very different novel to the ones I had read in the past. I didn't need to be worried about this science. I didn't need to worry about the length. I didn't need to worry about anything at all, because, as I soon found out, The Mysterious Island is amazing.

The story starts off in the midst of a disaster that could only come from the mind of Jules Verne. Five men and a dog are attempting a daring hot air balloon escape from a Confederate prison camp in the midst of a hurricane. Things are not going well. There is a tear in the balloon that they cannot repair, the storm is raging wildly around them, and they are slowly but surely sinking lower and lower towards an endless stretch of ocean. They ditch all the supplies they have with them in an attempt to lighten the balloon's load, but eventually they crash into the ocean. Luckily for them, they wash up on the shores of a deserted (and mysterious, of course) island. They have no idea where they are and have nothing with them except the clothes on their backs. They appear to be completely alone.

From that moment on, the group is engaged in a constant struggle to survive. The island is composed of a variety of challenging terrains and dangerous wildlife, and the climate is harsh and unforgiving. Luckily, the men are well-equipped to handle it. Each member of the party has unique skills and knowledge that combine to keep everyone safe. Cyrus Harding, the group's leader, brings his engineering skills, Neb, a freed slave, brings culinary talents, Gideon Spilett, a reporter, brings his investigative know-how, Bonadventure Pencroft, a sailor, brings his nautical expertise, and Herbert Brown, a fifteen year old orphan, brings a vast knowledge of plant and animal species. Everyone takes an equal share in the work of establishing a homestead and through their ingenuity and persistence, they accomplish some pretty incredible things.

The Mysterious Island is a true survival story, similar to The Swiss Family Robinson or Robinson Crusoe.  It's also a fun adventure, full of exciting action sequences, surprising plot twists, and a very intriguing mystery to solve. While this isn't Verne's flashiest novel, it has a lot of charm. The writing is lighthearted, the science isn't overwhelming, and the characters are lovable. There is even an orangutan butler eventually, and let's be honest, not much can beat that.

I think, perhaps, that what I enjoyed the most of all in the novel were the four simple words, "nothing could be easier." These words were uttered many times by many characters in response to all sorts of difficulties. We need to forge our own steel? Nothing could be easier! We need to make our own explosives? Nothing could be easier! We need to build a working telegraph? Nothing could be easier!  We need to reckon our latitude and longitude using sticks and shadows? Nothing could be easier! The castaways were so relentlessly optimistic and resourceful that their accomplishments became a satisfying mix of amazing and hilarious. I couldn't wait to see what incredibly difficult thing they would find easy next.

Another neat aspect of the novel was the inclusion of characters from Verne's other stories. Two figures from his other books show up in The Mysterious Island, one of which is one of his most famous and beloved characters. To say more would spoil a major plot point, so all I will say is that I was so pleased to meet this character again and see what he was up to.

The Mysterious Island  was an immensely enjoyable reading experience. The pages were full of adventure after adventure, and the science, rather than bog the story down, imbued it with a sense of wonder. It made me feel like anything is possible, as long as you have enough brains and optimism. This was a fantastically clever little story and a wonderful way to kick off 2019. Out of the Verne novels I have read so far, this one is my second favorite, just behind Around the World in 80 Days. I can't wait to give another one of his books a shot next year. 

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2019 (a classic in translation): 1/12 Books Read

Total Books Read in 2019: 1

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Finally in 2019 Challenge

As I discussed in my previous post, I am challenging myself to read a small list of books that I keep pushing off in favor of completing other reading challenges in 2019. I figure that if I make those books into a challenge themselves, I will finally get to them. Here is my list: 

1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas - Completed in January 2019
2. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green - Completed in January 2019
3. Becoming by Michelle Obama - Completed in January 2019
4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - Completed in February 2019
5. The Power by Naomi Alderman - Completed in February 2019
6. Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart - Completed in February 2019

I'm going to keep updating this post with review links as I read. If I finish them all early, I will start adding bonus books to this list within this post. I'm hoping to read a whole lot of novels I've been meaning to get to this year!


It's February 22, and I'm officially done with my original list! I got into such a good reading groove in the beginning of the year that I just went through them all very quickly. I'm going to continue on with this challenge by reading whatever books I'm in the mood for off my shelves. I'll keep track below:

Additional Finally Books

7. On the Come Up by Angie Thomas - Completed in March 2019 
8. A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti - Completed March 2019
9. Count Zero by William Gibson - Completed March 2019
10. Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson - Completed April 2019
11.Burning Chrome by William Gibson - Completed April 2019
12. Plastic by Doug Wagner - Completed April 2019
13. Poorly Drawn Lines by Reza Farazmand - Completed April 2019
14. Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck - Completed April 2019 
15. A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer - Completed May 2019
16. Graceling by Kristin Cashore - Completed May 2019
17. Fire by Kristin Cashore - Completed June 2019
18. Bitterblue by Kristina Cashore - Completed June 2019
19. The Unteachables by Gordon Kerman - Completed June 2019
20. Breakout by Kate Messner - Completed June 2019
21. The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang - Completed July 2019
22. Matched by Ally Condie - Completed July 2019
23. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven - Completed July 2019
24. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi - Completed July 2019
25. Stardust by Neil Gaiman - Completed July 2019
26. Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson - Completed July 2019
27. Magic Flutes by Eva Ibbotson - Completed July 2019
28. Crossed by Ally Condie - Completed July 2019
29. Hold Still by Nina LaCour - Completed July 2019
30. Gyo by Junji Ito - Completed July 2019
31. And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness - Completed July 2019
32. A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood - Completed July 2019
33. The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill - Completed July 2019
34. Resistance by Jennifer Nielsen - Completed July 2019
35. The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman - Completed July 2019
36. Reached by Ally Condie - Completed July 2019
37. Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom by Lynda Blackmon Lowery - Completed August 2019
38. I Am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall - Completed August 2019
39. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin - Completed September 2019
40. Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks - Completed September 2019
41. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman - Completed October 2019
42. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman - Completed October 2019
43. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman - Completed October 2019
44. Verify by Joelle Charbonneau - Completed October 2019
45. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi - Completed November 2019
46. La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman - Completed November 2019
47. The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman - Completed November 2019
48. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides - Completed December 2019
49. Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake - Completed December 2019

Reading Resolutions: 2019

Happy 2019! I'm sitting here this morning full of optimism and motivation. Isn't it funny how the start of a new year does that to you? Nothing today is any different from the day before, but my outlook has totally brightened. I hope it sticks!

Since I was unhappy with the amount I was able to read last year, I'm determined to do better and get back to my normal levels of reading this year. I'm trying to set moderate goals since I'm still going through a period of great change in my life, but I feel like I'm finally back in the driver's seat and ready to act more like myself again.

My Goodreads goal will be the same as last year. I want to read at least 50 books in 2019.

Once again, I will be participating in the Back to the Classics Challenge. The goal is to read 12 classic novels fitting different categories over the course of the year. My sign up post is here.

This is the challenge that I really need to focus on fixing. The Classics Club Challenge is a five year challenge. To finish my list, I need to read 20 books for it each year. I only read 13 books in 2018 from this list. That means that for this year, I need to read my 20 books and then try to make up as many of the missing seven from 2018 as I can. If I can read 27, that would be amazing, but I'm aiming for 24.

Lastly, I created my own little challenge for 2019, which I'm calling "Finally in 2019." The goal of the challenge is to read a list of six books that have been sitting on my shelves for a while that I really, really want to get to, but keep putting off in favor of other challenges. Sometimes I get too wrapped up in my reading goals and forget about the books I really want to read outside of  those. Here's my list:

1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
2. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
3. Becoming by Michelle Obama
4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
5. The Power by Naomi Alderman
6. Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart

I'll start adding bonus books to this list if I finish the original six early in the year. 

So, that's my complete set of reading goals! I'm about to sit down now and indulge in my favorite tradition - starting the year with a Jules Verne novel. I'm excited to leave last year behind and embark on some new adventures.