Friday, January 31, 2020

January Wrap Up

I haven't done monthly reading wrap ups in a few years, but I'm thinking about bringing the practice back for 2020 so that I can keep better track of my book ratings. I'm going to give it a shot this month and see how I like it.

I finished eight total novels in January. Here's the breakdown:

The Green Ray by Jules Verne (4/5 stars)
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier (5/5 stars)
The Harp of Kings by Juliet Marillier (2/5 stars)
The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sarah Miller (4/5 stars)
Trinkets by Kirsten Smith (2/5 stars)
White Jacket by Herman Melville (2/5 stars)
Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (3/5 stars)
The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater (4/5 stars)

While I'm happy with the amount of books I was able to read, this was a mixed bag for me quality-wise. There were high points and low points throughout the month. I really enjoyed both of the nonfiction books I read, The Green Ray, and of course, my reread of Daughter of the Forest was fantastic. Everything else, though, was only okay.

Not counting the reread, I think The Green Ray was my January favorite. It had all the usual humor and adventure of a Jules Verne novel, plus one of the sweetest endings in the world. My least favorite was The Harp of Kings. It fell far short of what I know and love about Juliet Marillier's writing, and contained several elements that annoyed me.

My most surprising read was definitely Venus in Furs. It was a scandalous classic that still felt scandalous today. I knew beforehand that this book is where the term 'masochist' comes from, but I didn't anticipate it being so spicy! I won't be forgetting Severin and his whip anytime soon.

My most forgettable read was Trinkets. I read that only a few weeks ago, and I can barely remember it. If I didn't have my review here on the blog, I would probably have totally forgotten it by now. There just wasn't anything special to hang onto in its pages.

So while January wasn't exactly a bad month for reading, I'm hoping for a bit more success in February. I'd like to read more books at four or five stars, although I can't really control that. I'm also hoping that my Then vs. Now selection will be more impressive. I'm going to be rereading The Night Circus, then trying out The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. It would be nice to like both of them this time around.

Here's my complete February TBR:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei
Black Boy by Richard Wright
The Financier by Theodore Dreiser

Of course, I'm hoping to be able to read a few books beyond these, but those are my main goals. A new favorite might be hidden somewhere in that list. I'm excited to start the month and find out.

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

One of my reading goals for 2020 is to read one nonfiction book every month. I already read The Dionne Quintuplets for January, but I decided to pick up another nonfiction book a little bit early. I teach 8th grade language arts, and the next unit of study my school is working on is literary nonfiction. The 57 Bus is one of the novels available for our students to read. Coincidentally, I have been wanting to read this book for a while now, so I decided to start reading alongside my kids.

The 57 Bus tells the true story of Sasha and Richard, two teenagers whose lives changed forever on a public bus in 2013. While riding from high school one afternoon, Richard, at the encouragement of a few friends, held a lighter up to the edge of Sasha's skirt as they slept, completely oblivious to what was going on. Richard assumed that the skirt would smoke a little bit, and Sasha would wake up and stomp it out. Instead, however, the skirt erupted into flames, causing horrific third degree burns all over Sasha's legs.

 Biologically, Sasha was born a male, but identifies as agender (and uses they/them pronouns). To Richard, Sasha looked like a boy in a skirt, which prompted his decision to "prank" them. As a result, he was charged as an adult with two hate crimes, the combination of which could put him into jail for life. The novel chronicles the crime itself and the aftermath, giving the perspectives of both Richard and Sasha as they work to recover from what happened. Also included are chapters containing information on the many social issues tied up with the case, such as the history of charging teenagers as adults, the incarceration rates for African American youths, statistics about the prevalence of hate crimes, and a glossary of gender/sexuality terminology.

On its surface, The 57 Bus, is a story about two teenagers wrapped up in a horrible, senseless crime. Underneath, however, it's an education in the flaws present in the criminal justice system, LGBTQIA rights, and the power of forgiveness and understanding. This is the kind of nonfiction perfect for young readers. It both teaches about an event and nudges them towards a increased understanding of important issues in their world. The structure is also attractive to young readers, with several short chapters to keep the action moving. To mix things up, occasionally a chapter will use a different format, such as a text message transcript or a free verse poem, all of which will keep kids engaged.

In addition to these points in its favor, The 57 Bus is just plain interesting. I was engaged from page one and moved through the novel quickly, anxious to see what the outcomes for Sasha and Richard would be. Dashka Slater tells the story masterfully, and maintains a nice balance between information about the crime and the background information necessary to place it in its proper context. She also does a nice job humanizing both Sasha and Richard. I initially thought I wouldn't be feeling too much sympathy for Richard throughout the text, but Slater does enough explaining about his background and feelings to help the reader understand him. That's not to say that Slater excuses his actions, because she does not, but she does provide an explanation for why he behaves the way he does that the reader can empathize with.

Overall, I thought The 57 Bus was a wonderful story for both young adult and adult readers alike. Its blend of information and social justice combined to provide a truly engaging reading experience. This is one book that I would recommend to anybody, and I'm so glad to have included it in my True Books 2020 Challenge.

Challenge Tally
True Books 2020: 2/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 8

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Okay, this is an odd one. Bear with me.

I first heard about Venus in Furs from a Dover Publications catalog. I saw from the little blurb that this classic novel was "controversial" in its day and its author's name was where the word masochist comes from. That was all I needed to know, honestly. I loaded it onto my Kindle and stuck it on my Classics Club list in the "Wildcard" category, because it seemed to belong there more than anywhere else. I finally got around to reading it last week.

The plot concerns a young European man named Severin von Kusiemski. He is nursing a secret desire to be completely dominated and controlled by a woman, and he finally finds the perfect person to fulfill that desire in the beautiful Wanda von Dunajew, a young widow living in the rooms above him. After spending some time getting to know Wanda, Severin becomes completely obsessed with her and begs her to become his mistress and treat him like a slave. Wanda is intrigued by the concept and agrees to give it a try. She turns out to be a natural at it, and delights in controlling Severin. She employs both verbal abuse and a whip to shame, humiliate, and excite him. 

The relationship between the pair intensifies over time. They eventually enter into an official master/slave relationship, and Wanda has Severin sign a contract giving up all of his rights to her. They even relocate to Italy so that they can live freely in a place where they aren't known to anyone. Eventually, however, Wanda begins developing feelings for a different man, and their taboo arrangement begins to fall apart before Severin's eyes.

Most of the time, when you read a classic that was considered "shocking" when it was originally published, it doesn't exactly feel shocking anymore. Not so with Venus in Furs. It is still pretty shocking today. I felt like I was reading something I shouldn't, despite that fact that this was published back in 1870. All of Severin and Wanda's activities, like the master/slave contract, the whipping, the bondage,etc., could have come out of a modern story. I was surprised that people engaged in this type of relationship way back in the 1800s, and it was interesting to see it play out in the time period. As it was only 160 pages, I finished the whole thing in one sitting, fueled by a morbid curiosity to see what salacious thing would happen next.

Despite its short length and spicy content, there was a surprising amount of depth to the novel as well, particularly in Severin and Wanda's attitudes behind their relationship. There is a lot one could analyze about why Severin was interested in being dominated and why Wanda agrees to it. Severin starts out completely idolizing Wanda, but after his relationship with her ends, his feelings shift dramatically. He becomes bitter and cruel to all women, going to far as to tell a friend, "In spite of all the advances of civilization, woman has remained as she came out of the hand of nature. She has the nature of a savage, who is faithful or faithless, magnanimous or cruel, according to the impulse that dominates at the moment...Don't ever forget that, and never feel secure with the woman you love." He ends the novel saying that, "“The moral of the tale is this: whoever allows himself to be whipped,
deserves to be whipped.”

It felt strange to see a character that started out completely idolizing and wanting to be subservient to a woman end up with this attitude. He comes to embrace a completely sexist worldview and essentially kink-shames himself. Even Wanda expresses views that mix strength and sexism, once telling Severin that, “I can easily imagine belonging to one man for my entire life, but he would have to be a whole man, a man who would dominate me, who would subjugate me by his inate strength. And every man—I know this very well—as soon as he falls in love becomes weak, pliable, ridiculous. He puts himself into the woman's hands, kneels down before her. The only man whom I could love permanently would be he before whom I should have to kneel.” Yikes. I'm sure that someone well versed in human sexuality could write pages of analysis on this relationship. Alas, my knowledge in this area is too thin to attempt anything deep. It must suffice for me to say that the book was interesting and fostered a lot of thought about topics that I don't often think about.

The introduction to my version of the book asked the reader to keep an open mind while making their way through the text, and I think that's a good bit of advice for anyone interested in reading Venus in Furs. This was an enjoyable and different kind of read. It didn't end up being a special favorite, but it was certainly memorable.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#91 on my list): 64/100 

Total Books Read in 2020: 7

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

White Jacket by Herman Melville

I first came across White Jacket several years ago in a gigantic used bookstore in Florida. I hadn't heard of the story before, but the cover looked cool and I recognized Herman Melville's name, of course. I read Moby Dick in high school and really enjoyed it, so I figured I'd give this one a try. I put it on the American Authors section of my Classics Club list, and since it fit into the 19th Century Classic category of the Back to the Classics Challenge, I decided to pick it up this month.

Based on the cover, summary on the back, and my previous experience with Melville, I went into my reading assuming that this would be an adventure-at-sea type of novel. I ended up being entirely wrong. Accordingly, I must warn anyone reading this that a dreadfully uninspired and unrefined review is written below. I am going to do what I generally try to avoid when talking about classic novels; I'm going to whine about it being boring.

White Jacket is essentially a collection of short essays about what life was like for a seaman serving on a Man-of-War in the nineteenth century. Each chapter is narrated by a nameless protagonist, known only by the nickname White Jacket, who is a main-top man on the U.S.S. Neversink. Throughout the course of the novel, he discusses many different aspects of his life in the Navy. Everything, from the mildly interesting to the completely mundane, is described in great detail. Topics such as sleeping arrangements, meal prep, and leisure time are covered, along with several chapters detailing White Jacket's personal criticisms about the rules and regulations of the U.S. Navy during that time period.

These observations all take place during the Neversink's return voyage home, which is a fairly uneventful trip. As such, there are not many scenes of action in the story. Indeed, there is no real plot to the novel at all. It truly is just a series of musings about life on a frigate. Melville wrote White Jacket based on his personal experiences serving on the U.S.S. United States, and it definitely reads like he just took his journal entries and memories from that time and inserted a handful of fictional characters into them. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but this goes on for over 500 pages, and that much information without a plot behind it starts to feel very, very long.

By the time I got to the last few hundred pages of this, I was desperate to finish. The writing wasn't bad at all, in fact, Melville's prose is eminently readable, but it just became way too much of the same thing. There were too many descriptions of banal topics and not enough characters or story to get engaged in. There were occasional flashes of interest spread throughout the text, but for every chapter with a dangerous storm or a gruesome leg amputation, there were twenty chapters about doing laundry, playing checkers, and visiting the barber. It was just not a fun read for me.

The novel is probably the most famous for its condemnation of corporal punishment in the Navy, most specifically the practice of flogging. This form of discipline was applied liberally on the ship, even just for minor offenses. It is clear that Melville abhorred flogging, and he includes several chapters about it, in which he argues that it is cruel, unconstitutional, and immoral. His arguments were so persuasive that this novel actually helped to get flogging banned in the Navy. He raises several other objections to the way the Navy is run throughout the text as well, and expounds at length about hypocrisy, the abuse of power, and the pointlessness of certain traditions. It seems that the overall point of White Jacket was not just to describe the life of an able seaman, but to offer suggestions on how to improve the Navy. These observations and critiques were interesting to a point, but like the other chapters in the novel, they became tiresome after a while. It is pretty cool that this book actually inspired real social changed though.

This wasn't a completely bad reading experience for me. There were some sections that stood out from the rest, the writing was solid and very descriptive, and any chapters concerning the protagonist's seemingly cursed white jacket were good for a laugh. There were even some bits of it that reminded me of themes from Moby Dick (which Melville would go on to write the following year). On the whole, however, I will not remember this novel as one of my favorites. It was just not the type of classic that I love. However, I always value the chance to experience the works of the past, so I'm not sorry I gave it a try.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2020 (19th Century Classic): 2/12
Classics Club (#81 on my list): 63/100 

Total Books Read in 2020: 6

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Trinkets by Kirsten Smith

I wasn't planning on reading Trinkets this month (or ever), but one of my students recently read it and offered to loan it to me. It's my general policy to always say yes when that happens, so here we are. This young adult novel about a trio of teenage shoplifters was originally published in 2013, but a Netflix series based on the novel that premiered last year has revived interest in it. I hadn't heard of either the series or the novel before last week, so I went into my reading with no expectations.

The story revolves around three high school students that meet at a Shoplifter's Anonymous meeting. Each of the girls were caught stealing in separate incidents and are required to attend these meetings as a consequence for their actions. They are from very different groups in their school, and would not associate with each other under normal circumstances. Moe is your typical "tough girl," Tabitha runs with the popular crowd, and Elodie is the new girl in town. Despite these differences, however, the crucible of the SA meetings pushes them together and they grudgingly start to become friends.

Rather than attempt to reform their ways, the girls decide to set a challenge for themselves. They start competing to see who can steal the best items. Throughout their competition, they start to become closer and support each other though their various troubles at home. Eventually, they start to learn that the social divisions holding them apart at school don't mean very much, and the thrill of the steal is ultimately a hollow, and temporary, feeling that can't fix the pain they are feeling in their personal lives.

Trinkets was an entirely okay book. It was a very fast paced and quick read, taking me about three hours to make my way through the whole thing. The narration alternates between Moe, Tabitha, and Elodie, and each girl does maintain a unique voice throughout the story. The plot is fairly straightforward, with one pretty neat twist thrown in that I enjoyed.

Where the book falls short is in its brevity. Nothing is explored in very much detail, so the story feels shallow. When I read young adult contemporary novels, I like to see a little more character development and intricacy in the plot. The quick pace made everything go too fast. The girls became friends too fast, competed to steal items too fast, and solved their problems too fast. The shoplifting isn't even described thoroughly. With the exception of one or two instances, the girls just show up with stolen merchandise at their meeting place. To be fair though, maybe Kirsten Smith was trying to avoid writing a "how to steal" guide for teens. That wouldn't be a good look for her.

Despite the speed of the story, Trinkets was still an entertaining read. It's a good novel for a younger audience. It will keep teen readers engaged and give them the joy of finishing a novel they like quickly. That's the kind of experience that keeps kids reading, so I don't have any big problems with this novel's shortcomings. It was inoffensive and fairly interesting, and now I have something I can recommend to my students. I'd call that a mild success.

Challenge Tally

Total Books Read in 2020: 5

The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sarah Miller

For my first nonfiction read of 2020, I decided to try The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets. This young adult novel caught my eye in Barnes and Noble a few months back and has been in the back of my mind ever since. I'd never heard of the Dionne Quintuplets before reading it, but the inside flap of the book sounded fascinating. I knew I wanted to pick this one up early on in my True Books 2020 Challenge, so I started in on it this week.

The novel tells the story of Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie Dionne, a set of quintuplets born in 1934 to a working class family in Ontario. Weighing a total of 13 pounds at birth, the girls were not expected to survive, but due to the vigilance of a dedicated medical team and plenty of donations from their public, they all managed to pull through. The sisters quickly became international celebrities, with tourists from all over the world writing them letters, sending them gifts, and even driving to the Dionne property to try and catch a glimpse of them through their windows.

In an effort to protect the girls from both their overly-adoring fans and enterprising hucksters looking to exploit them for financial gain, the government of Ontario seized custody of them and placed them in a custom-built hospital directly across the street from their parents' tiny farmhouse. For the next nine years of their lives, the quints were put on display to the public. Visitors to the hospital could watch them at play through one-way viewing screens, and thousands showed up each month to do so. In addition to the public displays, the quints' images were used in advertising, they did voicework on radio programs, and they even appeared in a few movies. The money they earned was put into a trust fund for them, which helped support their family and pay for the team of doctors and nurses that cared for them. They made their once-poor family very wealthy, but all was not well underneath the happy, sweet image their government-appointed guardians promoted.

Throughout the nine years the girls lived away from their family, their parents were engaged in a bitter fight with the government and their medical team to try and get them back. They eventually succeeded in bringing their daughters home, but the toll the fight took on everyone was tremendous. The girls found themselves unable to relate to their parents and other siblings, and their parents' frustration at their reticence to engage manifested in all different kinds of abuse. To complicate matters further, the girls' sheltered upbringing left them unable to function normally in society. Even the simplest of things, from shopping for their own clothing to going on dates, had to be learned from scratch once they became adults. Their struggles did not even improve with time, as leaving home, attending college, and starting their own families was fraught with difficulty for them. The Miracle &Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets is a detailed record of a very strange and sad little chapter of history, in which government overreach, poverty, and greed came together in a way that spelled disaster for five innocent children.

This book was absolutely fascinating, and I raced through it in just a couple of days. Sara Miller's narration is detailed and well-researched. Her writing style is appropriately clear and straightforward enough for a young adult audience, and there are many pictures included throughout the text to give readers additional context for the events of the story. Each chapter is titled using the actual titles of old newspaper and magazine articles regarding the quints, which I thought was a very nice touch. It helped reinforce the idea that every detail of this family's life was being reported on and consumed by the public, even into their adult years.

Miller also succeeds at presenting a balanced account of the Dionne's situation, explaining the viewpoints of the Dionne family, the doctors and nurses that cared for the girls, the government officials involved in their care, and, of course, the quints themselves. Looking at each of these viewpoints was one of the most engaging aspects of the book for me, because it really leads you on a roller coaster of emotions as the story develops. At first you feel sorry for the Dionne parents and outraged at the government overstepping their bounds, but once the girls go home, you start to lose sympathy for Mama and Poppa Dionne very quickly and wonder if government guardianship wasn't the right choice after all. Then, you start to question what things might have been like if the government had never intervened in the first place. However, after that, you remember that the girls would never had survived their infancy without that government interference.  The situation is complex and it's tough to pull any simple conclusions from it, especially since many of the people involved were making decisions based on what they thought was in the best interest of the children. It was interesting to grapple with questions of responsibility and ethics while reading.

While I did really enjoy learning about the Dionne Quintuplets as an adult reader, I did question Miller's decision to write this as a young adult book. I do not think that the first half of the story will hold teen readers' interest for long. While it is well-written, it is fairly dry. As a young reader, you'd have to have some pretty well-developed reading stamina to make it through all the descriptions of the girls' lives in the hospital and the endless tug of war between their parents and their medical care team. I also think that a lot of teens lack the background knowledge required to pick up on the deeper themes of the story. A lot of what happens to the Dionne Quints happens because they were born poor, and most of the students I teach aren't exactly well-versed in the politics of classism and poverty. I teach eighth grade. I know that most of my students would be bored by this.

Furthermore, the second half of the story gets into some very tough topics that not all young readers might be ready to process. There are no real warning that these topics are coming, either. There was a point in the novel where my jaw dropped open and my heart sank into my stomach at what these girls went through. This is definitely a book for older teens, and you probably wouldn't think that just from looking at the cover and reading the summary. As the plot moves on, things only get worse for everyone involved in the story. There is not a happy ending here, and not a lot of lessons to take away from it. The story is very interesting, of course, but I don't think it's necessarily the best topic for young adult nonfiction. So, after reading, I was left curious as to who exactly this book is really for. it would be a special young adult reader indeed that is able to maintain their interest all the way through and have a sophisticated enough understanding of the world to truly engage with the topic.

Despite that, however, I really enjoyed The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets. It was a detailed and thorough account of an odd piece of history I had never heard of before. While the story was a sad one, it does provide a lot of interesting points to mull over about poverty, parenting, greed, human rights, fame, and ethics. I probably would not recommend this book to teens, but I would definitely recommend it to adults who are interested in learning about the Dionne Quints. This was a great way to start off my True Books 2020 Challenge. I'm realizing that I actually miss reading nonfiction, and I'm already looking forward to picking up another nonfiction novel next month.

Challenge Tally
True Books 2020: 1/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 4

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Harp of Kings by Juliet Marillier

*Mild spoilers ahead!*

Juliet Marillier is one of my favorite authors, so when I learned that she was coming out with a new fantasy series last year, I was really excited. I picked up The Harp of Kings shortly after it was released and made it part of my Then vs. Now Reading Challenge, in which I reread an old favorite, then a new-to-me book by the same author. For my old favorite, I reread Daughter of the Forest and had a wonderful time falling back into that world and revisiting some of my favorite literary characters. As I moved onto Harp of Kings, I had high hopes that I might find another story by Marillier to love. Alas, I was destined to be disappointed.

The Harp of Kings is set in medieval Ireland, and follows three characters who are all in training to join an elite band of warrior-spies. The first of these characters, Liobhan, is a fierce and fiery eighteen-year-old woman with big ambitions. She is a talented singer and whistle player, but her heart is set on becoming a warrior and being accepted as an official member of the spy group. The next character is Brocc, her brother. Like Liobhan, he is musically inclined, and is a gifted harpist and singer. He is also talented in combat, but his heart isn't quite as into being a warrior as his sister's. He's along for the ride though, and trains competently beside her. The third character is Dau, a young man with a bristly exterior and a troubled past. Making it into the warrior band means everything to him, and he scrupulously keeps score of who is likely to be accepted into the team in his head.

The plot begins when Liobhan, Brocc, and Dau are selected to participate in a mission in the neighboring kingdom of Breifne, even though they are still just trainees. Liobhan and Brocc are chosen for their musical talents, as the mission requires them to work undercover as traveling bards. Dau is asked to participate due to his expertise with horses, as they need someone to pose as a ferrier. Their goal is to recover a missing object of extreme symbolic importance to Breifne, the Harp of Kings. This Harp is required to be present at an upcoming coronation. Liobhan, Brocc, and Dau are tasked with slipping in among the people of the kingdom, discovering who is responsible for the theft, and returning the harp in time for the ceremony.

Their mission goes from being a straightforward robbery investigation to a confusing foray into the uncanny when it becomes clear that beings from a magical realm might be involved. To complicate matters further, the group discovers that the man who is to be crowned king at the upcoming coronation is entirely unfit to lead, throwing the consequences of completing their job into question. As the team slowly gets closer and closer to uncovering the location of the harp, they are forced to make some difficult decisions about how much they are willing to sacrifice to bring about a conclusion that is right for the future of the kingdom.

I was quite disappointed with this novel. That's a difficult thing for me to say, as I am so in love with other books by Juliet Marillier, but I must be honest. I did not enjoy this half as much as I was expecting to, and it was a slog to make it to the end.

It started off well enough. I was interested in the story, and I thought the plot moved along at a good pace. After a while, however, things became slow and the characters began acting in ways that were frustrating to me. The biggest example of this was in their continual, flagrant violation of all the rules of their mission. All of the major characters in the novel, particularly Liobhan and Dau, are supposed to be laser-focused on trying to make it into the spy group, but this ambition does not match the way they behave. At every opportunity, they break rules, ignore their directions of their leaders, and draw an immense amount of attention to themselves. There isn't even much of an internal struggle going on in their minds as they do so; if the limitations placed on them by their role in the mission are inconvenient to them, they disregard them. From time to time a character will acknowledge that they aren't following orders, but it's in a casual, shoulder-shrugging kind of way. They expect their rash actions will catch up with them at some point, but they are never particularly worried about that in the moment.

This might be forgivable if the characters ended up facing consequences by the end of the story, but they don't. In fact, they are rewarded for their insubordination, and praised for being creative problem solvers. This is dysfunctional and shouldn't be how an elite organization of warrior spies works. It undermined the framework of the story and became a continual irritation as I read.

The plot itself became more thin and vague as it went on as well. The setup of a secret mission with assumed identities implies that something exciting and intriguing will eventually be uncovered, but that never really happened. The details of where the harp went are left very vague, and explained away with a throwaway comment about the mysterious ways of the Fair Folk from the other realm. This story was supposed to center around a mystery so impenetrable that spies were needed to unravel it, but in the end there was barely a mystery to solve at all. The characters used a combination of magic and dumb luck to complete the mission, meaning that their supposedly impressive skills in combat and spying didn't even come into play. It all felt sloppy, which is not a word I ever thought I would associate with Marillier's work.

So ultimately, I was left wanting a lot more from The Harp of Kings. I wasn't overly fond of the characters, and the plot itself was lacking the complexity you would expect from a novel about spies. Also, while this isn't a criticism, I was surprised at the complete lack of any LGBTQIA characters. This is a brand new book, and many new fantasy novels include a more diverse cast nowadays. There were several places in the story where these types of characters would have fit in well. It felt like a missed opportunity.

The Harp of Kings is the start of a new trilogy, and I do not think I will be picking up any of the other books in the series once they are released. There just wasn't enough I liked here to catch my interest. I am disappointed, but still glad that I got a chance to explore another work by one of my favorite authors. It ended up not being to my taste, but that's okay. Nothing will ever dampen my love for the Sevenwaters books. For my first match-up in my Then vs. Now Challenge, the "then" book definitely wins out.

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 2/27 

Total Books Read in 2020: 3

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

When people ask me what my favorite book is, I unfailingly respond with The Great Gatsby. That's a bit of a fib though. Gatsby is my favorite classic, but Daughter of the Forest is my true, snuggle-up-and-get-lost-in favorite. This little, unassuming fantasy novel that I never hear anyone talk about has wedged itself into my heart and managed to stay there since I first read it in the ninth grade. I've lost count of how many times I've read this book in total, but I haven't read it lately. The last time I picked it up was 2012.

Naturally, when I decided to reread some of my old favorite novels this year for my Then vs. Now Challenge, this book was at the top of my list. I recently picked up The Harp of Kings, Marillier's latest novel, and I was interested to both compare the two, and to see if Daughter of the Forest still holds the same appeal for me at this stage of my life.

The plot is loosely based on a fairy tale called "The Six Swans." It follows a young Irish girl named Sorcha, who must complete an arduous task to save her brothers from a witch's enchantment. Her quest is a long and painful one that will take years to complete, and she must remain completely silent until it is finished. Her path eventually leads her all the way to England, where she falls in love with one of her family's enemies and things become even more complicated. To say more would spoil the sweetness of the story, so you will have to read it for yourself if you want to know more.

The novel is set in medieval Ireland, and a rich background of Celtic mythology and magic is woven throughout the plot. Marillier does an excellent job creating a vivid and mysterious world for her characters. Everything, from the descriptions of the wooded landscape to the stories the characters tell each other, live and breathe Ireland. The setting is well-developed enough to give the reader pangs of real sorrow when Sorcha is forced to leave it for a time. This is clearly a time period and culture that Marillier knows well, and the way she describes the fictional tuath of Sevenwaters makes the place feel real and important. As a reader, I generally find the parts of novels that describe the setting to be a bit boring, but I was entranced by it here. The universe of the story feels solid and spiritual. One is truly whisked away to a different time and place while reading this.

The pace of the story is deliberately slow. This is meant to be a long adventure; Sorcha's quest to restore her brothers to their human forms will take her years to complete, and the speed of the text matches the magnitude of her task. The story feels like years have passed within it, but not in a dull, plodding way. Nothing feels unnecessary or boring here, just suitably epic. While some readers may dislike the slow burn of the plot, I enjoy getting lost in the story. Nothing is rushed, and everything is beautifully developed. Daughter of the Forest takes its time, and the result is an uncommonly beautiful story.

When I was a teenager, I was all about the romance of the book. While I still believe that Daughter of the Forest is one of the most perfect love stories I have ever read, I have come to appreciate the strength and independence of Sorcha just as much. She is the kind of character I would want to know in real life. She is brave and kind, clever and loyal. She is strong of heart, but has her moments of fear and weakness too. I have seen a few reviewers on Goodreads comment negatively on her forced silence throughout the novel, saying that it makes her weak. On the contrary, I believe that her ability to persist in her task and make herself understood throughout the story in spite of the loss of her voice makes her strong. Sorcha must find other ways to communicate and keep going against incredible odds, and hearing the story from her quiet perspective is a real pleasure. As a quiet person myself, I enjoy reading about a quiet character. Not every fantasy heroine has to be a spitfire.

This is book one of the Sevenwaters Trilogy. I have read all three, as well as the additional three novels Marillier set in this universe. All of them are readable, and most are very good, but Daughter of the Forest is by far my favorite. I know that I will continue to return to it again and again in future years, as it's most definitely still a special favorite. I know that it's impossible for me to review this novel with any sense of objectivity. I read it at the perfect time in my life and I doubt that I will ever change my mind about it. Even so, I'm quite relieved that reading it again confirmed these feelings. It still holds up, and I very much enjoyed revisiting this old friend. As far as favorite books go, Daughter of the Forest may not be as impressive-sounding as The Great Gatsby, but it sure is just as satisfying.

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 1/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 2

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Green Ray by Jules Verne

One of my favorite personal reading traditions is starting off the year with a Jules Verne novel. Something about starting a new year off with a spectacular adventure just feels right to me. I have been doing this for five years now, and so far I have read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, and The Mysterious Island. My pick for 2020 was The Green Ray, one of Verne's lesser-known works. This one appealed to me because it featured a female protagonist, which was something I hadn't encountered in any of his novels so far. So, on the morning of January 1, I curled up with my cup of coffee and dove in.

The plot of the novel follows Helena Campbell, a young Scottish woman with a romantic mind and a keen sense of adventure. Both of her parents died when she was a baby, and she has been raised by her uncles, Samuel and Sebastian Melville. Helena's uncles love her devotedly, and want nothing but the best for her. Accordingly, they are anxious to secure her a husband now that she has come of age. Unfortunately, they are rather oblivious when it comes to matchmaking, and the settle on a hopelessly arrogant and joyless academic named Aristobulus Ursiclos (the world's best name).

Helena, in an effort to buy herself some time, insists on putting off marriage until she observes a scientific phenomenon known as the Green Ray. The Green Ray is a quick, bright green flash that appears on the horizon just as the sun is setting over an ocean view. Legend says that viewing the Green Ray allows you to know your own heart's desires, including your true love. Unable to deny Helena anything, her uncles agree to travel to a place with a clear view of the ocean so they they can see the Ray.

Thus begins a grand adventure all throughout Argyll and the Inner Hebrides as the little family rushes from one place to another trying to catch the perfect view of the sunset. Along the way, they run into Aristobulus, who attaches himself to the group (much to Helena's dismay) and an adventurous young artist named Oliver Sinclair. The party is continually stymied in their mission by inclement weather, errant birds, wandering clouds, and boats sailing by at inconvenient moments. Every time they think they have the perfect sunset view, something come along to spoil it. Frustrated, Helena insists on traveling to a tiny uninhabited island to view the sunset without the risk of animals or tourists getting in the way. However, a when a powerful squall hits, everyone winds up in a fight for their lives.

The Green Ray is unlike any of the other Verne novels that I have tried so far. It's not science fiction, but it is an extremely sweet and funny adventure containing a lovable and eccentric cast of characters. There were several instances that made me laugh out loud and the quick pacing and copious illustrations kept me totally engaged while reading. This is a shorter novel that just flies by. My version had just 217 pages and it only took me two days to finish.

The Scotland setting forms the backbone of the story, and Verne describes each location the characters visit in very specific detail. I learned from the afterword to my edition that he took a trip there in his real life a few years before writing this novel, and his own journey became the journey Helena and her family take, right down to the boat names and hotel names. It is clear that he was quite moved by the Hebrides, as his descriptions of the islands' beauty go on at length. In fact, his praise was so effusive that it became tiring after a while. This was the one aspect of the novel that I didn't like so much, but Verne stories typically have over-long descriptions, whether it be of cities, nature, or scientific principles. It's part of his signature style and it comes with the territory.

Aside from the descriptive sections, everything else in The Green Ray was enjoyable. Aristobulus, especially, was the perfect heel, and watching him bumble his way into spoiling everyone's view of the ray over and over again was hilarious. Helena's uncles were funny characters as well. They were almost like twin brothers, in that they never did anything separate from each other, and their sweet, if imperfect, efforts to take care of their beloved niece were very sweet. Helena herself was a bit bland, but I did appreciate that she had an adventurous soul and that she found a creative way to dodge her uncles' attempt to marry her off without hurting their feelings.

My favorite part of the whole novel was definitely the ending. I won't spoil whether the characters ever actually see the ray or not, but I will say that what ends up happening is incredibly heartwarming and adorable. This was definitely a lower-stakes adventure than the other Verne novels I have read. However, its cast of friendly, goodhearted characters and its fun, romantic plot make it well worth the time if you're in the mood for a lighter classic. 

So ultimately, I really enjoyed The Green Ray. I wish Jules Verne had cut back a little on his personal vacation notes, but it's a sweet little adventure and I'm very glad I chose it to start off my 2020 reading. Verne was a prolific author and published over 50 novels in his lifetime. I'm not going to run out of titles to start my year with anytime soon, which is a wonderful thing. I'm already excited to pick out another book for next year. 

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2020 (Classic in Translation): 1/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 1

Friday, January 3, 2020

Back to the Classics 2020 - Sign Up Post

The Back to the Classics Challenge is coming back for 2020, and I couldn't be happier! Once the categories were posted, I had a lot of fun thinking of what I wanted to read for it. I'm going to attempt all twelve categories again this year. Here's what I came up with:

1. 19th Century Classic: White Jacket by Herman Melville (1850) - Completed January 2020
I came across a copy of this novel in a huge used bookstore a few years ago. I had never heard of it before that moment, but I liked the cover, and I liked reading Moby Dick in high school, so I'm going to give it a try.

2. 20th Century Classic: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford (1915) - Completed April 2020
I don't know much about this novel at all. I picked it up several years ago when I was on a classics-buying spree and I ended up putting it on my Classics Club list. Now is as good a time as any to actually read it.

3. Classic by a Female Author: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913) - Completed March 2020
I have heard a lot of positive things about Willa Cather over the years, but I have never read anything by her. This book has been sitting on my shelf since I was a teenager, so it's high time I got around to picking it up.

4. Classic in Translation: The Green Ray by Jules Verne (1882) - Completed January 2020
It's one of my traditions to start off each year with a Jules Verne novel. This will be how I start 2020.

5. Classic by a Person of Color: Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945) - Completed February 2020
I read Native Son last year and really enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to reading more from Richard Wright.

6. A Genre Classic: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954) - Completed June 2020
I'm a huge fantasy fan, but somehow, I have never read the most famous fantasy series of all time. I'm going to try and read the whole trilogy this year, starting with this one.

7. A Classic with a Person's Name in the Title: Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1886) - Completed March 2020
I already planned to read this novel for my Then Versus Now Challenge this year, so this prompt worked out well for me. I have loved all the other Burnett novels I have read, so I am anticipating loving this one too.

8. A Classic with a Place in the Title : The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall by Anne Brontë (1848) - Completed March 2020
This was one of the only books on my Classics Club list that I didn't already own. I recently picked up a very pretty edition of it, so I'm excited to get to read it.

9. A Classic with Nature in the Title: The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton (1922) - Completed May 2020
Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors, and I have four different books by her on my Classics Club list. I've only read one of them so far, so I decided to read another one for this category.

I just recently read Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell, and I had trouble getting through it. I'm hoping to like this novel better.

11. An Abandoned Classic: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855) - Completed August 2020
This category was tough for me, because it is extremely rare for me not to finish a book. After thinking for a bit, I remembered that I was supposed to read Leaves of Grass in college and I didn't really do it. I'm intimidated by this one, but I'm going to try and get through it for real this time.

12. A Classic Adaptation: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey (1962) - Completed November 2020 
Out of all the classics I have sitting on my shelf, I believe this is the only one I picked up because the movie adaptation is so famous. That makes it the perfect pick for this category.

I've got an ambitious lineup this year, but I feel good about it. I'm looking forward to making my way through these books and participating in this challenge for the sixth year in a row.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Then Versus Now Reading Challenge

I've been maintaining a list of my favorite novels here on my blog for the past several years. Every time I read a book that I really like, I add it to the list and link up the review. However, there are quite a few favorites on my list that I read way before I started blogging, and it has always bothered me that I don't have reviews posted for those books.

I decided that this year, I would start rereading some of those older favorites. To make it more interesting though, I'm going to pair each one with a new-to-me book by the same author and compare how I felt about their books back then versus how I feel about them now. I'm mixing works from all different time periods and genres in this challenge, so there will be a lot of variety in what I'm reading.

I'm curious to see if I still feel the same way about my old favorites after reading them again. It will also be interesting to see if I like any of the other books by these authors even more than my original favorites. I picked 13 sets of books to read and I plan to read around one match up per month. I will return here to link up my posts as I go.

The Match Ups:

1. Stephen Chbosky: The Perks of Being a Wallflower vs. Imaginary Friend
2. Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus vs. The Starless Sea
3. Juliet Marillier: Daughter of the Forest vs. The Harp of Kings
4. Markus Zusak: The Book Thief vs. Bridge of Clay
5. Rainbow Rowell: Eleanor and Park vs. Carry On and Wayward Son
6. Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird vs. Go Set a Watchman
7. Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden vs. Little Lord Fauntleroy
8. Jesse Andrews: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl vs. Munmun
9. John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men vs. In Dubious Battle
10. Mary Shelley: Frankenstein vs. The Last Man
11. E. Lockhart: We Were Liars vs. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks
12. Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin vs. Big Brother
13. Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale vs. The Testaments

True Books 2020

As a reader, I don't discriminate much. I read from a variety of genres and enjoy most things that I try. When I'm choosing books off my shelf though, I definitely tend to gravitate towards fiction novels. I enjoy reading nonfiction, but I really have to make a conscious effort in order to actually read it. I did not make any special effort towards reading it in 2019, and the result was that I only picked up two nonfiction books all year.

I want to do better in 2020, so I'm bringing back my True Books Challenge! I tried this challenge in 2018, and ended up reading more nonfiction in a single year than ever before, even though I didn't quite finish all that I set out to do. This time, I'm changing my rules. Instead of trying to read all the nonfiction on my shelves, I'm going to pledge to read one nonfiction book each month.

Here is what I plan to read. I will come back to this post to link reviews as I complete them:

1. The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sarah Miller Completed January 2020
2. Truevine by Beth Macy Completed July 2020
3. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi - Completed September 2020
4. Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser Completed April 2020
5. The Witches by Stacy Schiff - Completed October 2020
6. The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater Completed January 2020
7. I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda with Liz Welch Completed March 2020
8. Mama's Last Hug by Frans de Waal Completed August 2020
9. They Called Us Enemy by George Takei Completed February 2020
10. The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller - Completed June 2020
11. Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton - Completed November 2020
12. Educated by Tara Westover Completed May 2020

Bonus Books:
13. Black Boy by Richard Wright Completed February 2020
14. Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka Completed February 2020

Reading Resolutions: 2020

Happy 2020 everyone! We are at the start of a new year, and that means I have a whole new set of reading plans to tackle.

My Goodreads goal will be the same as the previous few years. I aim to read at least 50 books in 2020.

I will also continue to participate in the Classics Club Challenge. Last year, I was successful in catching up with where I need to be in order to finish on time. This year, I must read at least 20 books from it to stay on track. I'm hoping I can read a bit more than that though, so I can get a head start for 2021, which will be my last year of the challenge.

I will be participating in the Back to the Classics Challenge again this year too. My sign up post with my TBR list is here.

In 2019, I read a grand total of two nonfiction novels. This is unacceptable, so I'm bringing back my True Books Challenge. In 2020, I plan to read one nonfiction book each month.

My final challenge for 2020 will be my Then vs. Now Challenge. Each month, I will reread one of my favorite novels and compare it to a different book by the same author.

I'm excited and ready for my reading plans! I spent a lot of time crafting something that I think I will really enjoy. My goals are centered around broadening the types of books I read and revisiting some old favorites. I hoping that this year will turn out even better than the last.