Review: “Lies You Never Told Me,” by Jennifer Donaldson

I just realized this morning that I never posted an April Wrap-Up!  Whoops!  And we’re already halfway through May!

I’ll get working on my month overview soon, but in the meantime, here’s a little book review to tide you over. 😉

Lies You Never Told Me

First of all, I want to send out a huge thank you to Penguin Teen and Bookish for providing me an ARC of this book in exchange for a review.

After reading the small “first look” of this book on the BookishFirst website, I knew I wanted to read the whole thing–and the book did NOT disappoint!  Lies You Never Told Me  is a twisty, turny, nightmare-type masterpiece with just the right amount of suspense and mystery to keep you flipping pages (there’s a reason people stay up all night to finish it!).

This story is unbelievable.  I have to admit: I figured out the Major Twist on page 95.  I know this, because I was so mad at myself for nailing it down so early on!  This is not a jab at Donaldson–her mystery is phenomenal.  I’m just that good at figuring out major plot points…

But seriously, this plot is so good.  You really should be guessing clear until the very end!  It’s action-packed, and frighteningly plausible. The interplay of the storylines is so complex and intriguing.  This book has all the tenants of old mysteries with a modern and youthful twist.

The characters are also grand!  Donaldson does a GREAT job of helping you love the good guys and making you hate the bad guys (and she leaves you guessing about a few that seem to fall in between…).  One of my favorite characters is Vivi, who is just so wonderful. In fact, if I were to offer up a critique, it would be that I would have liked to see her fleshed out more.  Gabe and Elyse are excellent protagonists, who keep you engaged with their stories all the way through. This cast is wonderful, and I can’t praise it enough.

So, it’s probably no surprise that I loved Donaldson’s writing in this book.  Her style is fast and quick-witted. Despite the dark themes of the text, I found myself laughing out loud at more than one point.  The language and dialogue feels authentic, and Gabe and Elyse’s voices are easily distinguished from each other. And, as previously mentioned, the plot is laid out at the perfect pace–just the right amount of information is dished out at just the right time.

In short, I’m totally fangirling over this book.  I highly recommend it to all mystery lovers, even if you aren’t into YA–while the book may be set in high school, the themes are for anyone.

Also, I want more!!! Jennifer Donaldson did such a good job, I hope to see more books from her in the (please let it be near) future.

 

Cheers!

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Review: “Furyborn” by Claire Legrand

Hello, Book World!  I’m back with another extended review of a book I’ve read this month.  This time, it’s Furyborn by Claire Legrand!

Furyborn

Thank you to Fierce Reads for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for a review.

This book is completely outside my “genre comfort zone,” as I almost never read fantasy, and I read series fantasy even less often.  However I’ve heard a lot of hype surrounding this book, so I had high expectations for it to be amazing. While it didn’t necessarily “blow me out of the water,” I can definitely see why it’s shaping up to be the fantasy series of the year.

 

Follows two fiercely independent young women, centuries apart, who hold the power to save their world…or doom it.

When assassins ambush her best friend, the crown prince, Rielle Dardenne risks everything to save him, exposing her ability to perform all seven kinds of elemental magic. The only people who should possess this extraordinary power are a pair of prophesied queens: a queen of light and salvation and a queen of blood and destruction. To prove she is the Sun Queen, Rielle must endure seven trials to test her magic. If she fails, she will be executed…unless the trials kill her first.

A thousand years later, the legend of Queen Rielle is a mere fairy tale to bounty hunter Eliana Ferracora. When the Undying Empire conquered her kingdom, she embraced violence to keep her family alive. Now, she believes herself untouchable–until her mother vanishes without a trace, along with countless other women in their city. To find her, Eliana joins a rebel captain on a dangerous mission and discovers that the evil at the heart of the empire is more terrible than she ever imagined.

As Rielle and Eliana fight in a cosmic war that spans millennia, their stories intersect, and the shocking connections between them ultimately determine the fate of their world–and of each other.

Two girls, living a thousand years apart, each carrying a destiny they do not understand.  They’re inextricably linked, but we don’t know how yet. In a world prophesying a Blood Queen and a Sun Queen, who is who, and what does it all mean?  I found Furyborn to be a good first book in a series, with ample world-building and character introductions, that leaves you with just enough questions to wait for more.

Furyborn starts off with a lot of action, and it never slows down.  A lot happens in a short time, with each chapter alternating between the two girls–Eliana and Rielle.  Rielle is battling through a series of tests, and Eliana is constantly on the move. Their stories are entirely different, which made it easy to keep track of who was who (which was helpful, considering we began with little knowledge of either person and learned more as the story unfolded).  The story is constructed around a mystery: who are the two queens in the prophecy? While the truth of the queens’ identities isn’t revealed until near the end of this book, I would have appreciated more suspense. I actually didn’t find the reveal very surprising; the story could have been stronger with more mystery or elimination of the twist in the first place (as in, we could have found out up front, and the book would have unfolded in much the same way).

This book also had a lot of setup, as most first fantasy books do.  There’s a lot to describe about the world and its rules. This is why I am not a fan of the genre.  However, I can say that I understand the world these girls are in, which to me means the world building was done well.  I also think Legrand has set herself up well enough that the next book in the series won’t need as much description to carry the plot forward.

Furyborn has a wide cast of characters, some of whom I enjoyed and some of whom I didn’t.  In fact, I found the secondary characters to be some of my favorites in the story. Eliana’s brother and Rielle’s best friend are two such characters, whose presence strengthens the humanity of our two “queens.”  

As for the main two, I liked how driven they were.  I liked Eliana more than Rielle, but both girls have strong storylines that carry them forward.  However, I did have a few things about them that I did not like. First, I thought their sexuality felt forced and a little out of place.  I had heard that this book would have bi representation, and while it certainly has allusions to both girls being potentially bisexual, it’s never really fleshed out and ends up feeling very forced.  I also have a few concerns that the bisexual characters in this book furthering the stereotype that people who identify as bisexual are always promiscuous. The focus on sex was somewhat jarring. I don’t have an issue with sex appearing in teen lit, but this seemed oddly out of place and (yes, again) forced.  Perhaps these elements will be filled in more and differently in the future books, but right now I’m wondering what was the point.

I also didn’t like how few redeeming qualities the girls had.  They have these tragic backstories which drive their individual actions forward, and so their darkness is part of their makeup.  However, I think there is a difference between “badass” and “cruel” or “selfish.” When characters are so depraved, I find it hard to root for them.  I was looking for a little more humanity in our main characters, but couldn’t find any.

Finally, I had issues with the female-ness of this story and how it actually seemed to be lacking in important areas.  This book is being marketed as a female-power type book. However, despite our strong leading ladies, both girls end up being defined by “men.”  Audric and Simon shape the identities of Rielle and Eliana as much as the girls do. And they are often central to each girl’s agency. So, this doesn’t quite feel like a victory for feminism…yet.  Again, perhaps in the future books more direction will be given to the girls. But right now, I’ve yet to see it.

Finally, as it relates to the plot, I thought the girls’ ultimate character truths were less of a surprise than they were supposed to be.

The style of writing in Furyborn is well-suited to the genre.  It’s easy to read without being overly simplified, and the terminology created to describe what’s unique about this world was elegant and appropriate.  The third-person voice was also appropriate, particularly for switching between the two girls. It kept me reading and turning pages through to the end.

While I’ve had a few negative things to say, I think this book series has epic potential.  I’m glad we’re getting more female representation in the fantasy genre. This series can be a favorite alongside others like it.  I’d recommend it to the avid teen fantasy and adventure reader. And, like TV shows whose pilots are a little rocky, who hit their stride in Episodes 4-10, I don’t think we should give up on this story.  Who knows, the future books may take the potential found in these pages and carry it to fruition.

~*~

And there you have it!  In other news, I’m just days(!!!) away from drafting my April Book Review.  Can you believe how fast 2018 is flying by?!

Cheers!

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Review: “How to Walk Away” by Katherine Center

How to Walk Away

A big thank you to Bookish and St. Martin’s Press for providing me an ARC of this book, in exchange for a review.

How to Walk Away is the story of Margaret, who thinks she has her whole future figured out–she’s got the degree, the great job, the perfect guy… all she needs is the ring!  Then, a tragic accident rips her perfect life apart. In overcoming the hardest challenge she’s ever faced, she’ll find support and love in unconventional places.  This adorable book is a well-written romance with excellent characters and relatable drama.

I must admit, I figured out most of the plot of this book within the first three chapters.  I was a little worried at first that I would get bored with its predictability, but Katherine Center totally surprised and impressed me.  The story and characters were absolutely adorable. There were several individual plotlines that kept the overall story twisting and turning, and Center did a great job of staggering their resolutions.  It kept the pages turning, and I was eager to read more. There was also a good balance between character development and plot; not too much of either made the book a fast and engaging read. This book has a lot going on, but Center manages to tie up everything by the end–which includes a flash-forward that I totally love!

The characters in How to Walk Away are as wonderful as the plot.  They may be somewhat stereotypical of the romance genre, but I’m not upset about that.  Even the love triangle was intriguing! Margaret is a great main character. It was her personality that drew me to the text in the first place.  I love the dynamic between her and Kit (I’m a sucker for a good sister story, and these two are great fun!). We learn a lot about a good number of characters in this book, and they all contribute to what makes it so good.

If Margaret’s character is what attracted me to the book, it was her voice that kept me reading.  Center has created a sarcastic, hilarious, and relatable woman in her narrator. Her tone carries through in her different situations, and despite the difficulties of her predicament her voice stays light and mainly upbeat.  Sarcasm is hard to write, and yet Center had me laughing out loud at some of the snide things Margaret (or Kit, or Ian) would say. Such a great style of writing, it was perfect for the novel.

This was a fabulous little romance for some cozy reading–with just enough darkness to keep it interesting.  I tend to read a lot of “heavy” stuff, and this book, while it deals with a pretty serious topic, is a great “light” read for spring and summer.  I highly recommend it to the romance and drama lovers out there. For me, I look forward to trying out some of Center’s other books in the future.

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Book Wrap-Up: March 2018

I made it through a mighty 14 books this month, and they’re all over the place!  Take a look:

1. Tash Hearts Tolstoy, Kathryn Ormsbee

Tash Hearts Tolstoy

After a shout-out from one of the Internet’s superstar vloggers, Natasha “Tash” Zelenka finds herself and her obscure, amateur web series, Unhappy Families, thrust into the limelight: She’s gone viral.

Her show is a modern adaptation of Anna Karenina—written by Tash’s literary love Count Lev Nikolayevich “Leo” Tolstoy. Tash is a fan of the forty thousand new subscribers, their gushing tweets, and flashy Tumblr GIFs. Not so much the pressure to deliver the best web series ever.

And when Unhappy Families is nominated for a Golden Tuba award, Tash’s cyber-flirtation with Thom Causer, a fellow award nominee, suddenly has the potential to become something IRL—if she can figure out how to tell said crush that she’s romantic asexual.

Tash wants to enjoy her newfound fame, but will she lose her friends in her rise to the top? What would Tolstoy do?

This book had a great premise, but not much of a plot.  I was excited to read a book exploring the topic of asexuality, and I liked the idea of Tolstoy-goes-YouTube.  And, while these ideas serve their purpose in the story, the rest of the book fell pretty flat.  I lost my investment in most of the characters, and it was hard to then feel interested in where their stories were going.  I don’t know that I would recommend this one, despite the really neat ideas behind it.

 

2. Batwoman Comics, J.H. Williams III & W. Haden Blackman

A new era begins as Batwoman is unleashed on Gotham City! Marked by the blood-red bat emblem, Kate Kane is a soldier fighting her own private war – one that began years ago and haunts her every waking moment. In this first tale, Batwoman battles a madwoman known only as Alice, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, who sees her life as a fairy tale and everyone around her as expendable extras!


As a part of the acclaimed DC Comics—The New 52 event of September 2011, Batwoman’s new series finally begins! The creative team of J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman launch the ongoing Batwoman series, as Batwoman (a.ka. Kate Kane) faces deadly new challenges in her war against Gotham City’s underworld–and new trials in her personal life.Who or what is stealing children from the barrio, and for what vile purpose? Will Kate train her cousin, Bette Kane (a.k.a. Flamebird), as her new sidekick? How will she handle unsettling revelations about her father, Colonel Jacob Kane? And why is a certain government agency suddenly taking an interest in her? These are some of the questions that will be answered in this long-awaited series!

Six lives, inextricably linked in the past and present, each on a collision course with the others: Batwoman, fighting for duty and vengeance against a threat of arcane power. Detective Maggie Sawyer, investigating a case that could end her career. DEO Agent Cameron Chase, commanding a vigilante she despises. Colonel Jacob Kane, clutching at a life that’s slipping away. Maro, a new villain corrupting Gotham City. And Kate Kane, wrestling with decisions that will test her loyalties.

I am brand-new to the world of comics, and Batwoman is pretty much the first superhero I’ve decided to read.  So, with that disclaimer, I can admit that I don’t really have anything to compare these books to.  I liked them a lot!  Kate Kane is a pretty badass character.  The artwork was beautiful and the plot, while at times sort of confusing for someone new to the DC Universe, was engaging.  I don’t know that I’ll keep reading them or dive into other characters, but I’m very proud of myself for trying something new, and very pleased with the results!

 

3. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg

Fried Green Tomatoes

It’s first the story of two women in the 1980s, of gray-headed Mrs. Threadgoode telling her life story to Evelyn, who is in the sad slump of middle age. The tale she tells is also of two women — of the irrepressibly daredevilish tomboy Idgie and her friend Ruth, who back in the thirties ran a little place in Whistle Stop, Alabama, a Southern kind of Cafe Wobegon offering good barbecue and good coffee and all kinds of love and laughter, even an occasional murder.

This was my second time reading this book, because I absolutely love it!  I saw the movie first–several years before I even knew it was a book–and I’ve been in love with Idgie ever since.  Flagg has a veritable masterpiece in this book, which is most shallowly described as your basic women’s lit, but has so much more to offer!  The plot is great; I love the split-time between Ruth/Idgie and Evelyn/Ninny.  The murder and the subsequent resolution is intense and engaging.  And the relationships are just perfection.  Not to mention Flagg adds in just the right amount of “southern charm” and humor to make the reader gasp, and laugh out loud.  Everyone should read this book, at least once in their lives!

 

4. How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life, Lilly Singh

How to Be a Bawse

From actress, comedian, and YouTube sensation Lilly Singh (aka ||Superwoman||) comes the definitive guide to being a bawse—a person who exudes confidence, reaches goals, gets hurt efficiently, and smiles genuinely because they’ve fought through it all and made it out the other side.

Told in her hilarious, bold voice that’s inspired over nine million fans, and using stories from her own life to illustrate her message, Lilly proves that there are no shortcuts to success.

WARNING: This book does not include hopeful thoughts, lucky charms, and cute quotes. That’s because success, happiness, and everything else you want in life needs to be fought for—not wished for. In Lilly’s world, there are no escalators, only stairs. Get ready to climb.

I listened to the audiobook of this one, and I have to say having Lilly read her book to me was my favorite part about it!  Her wit and humor come through in every chapter, and her voice made the book feel exactly like an extended YouTube video.

That being said, I was a little disappointed with the actual messages in the book.  Instead of a memoir, Singh wrote a how-to, but many of her lessons feel so shallow and narrow-minded.  Singh isn’t that old, and has a relatively limited experience of the world.  A valid view, yes, but a small one all the same.  So she doesn’t really have the experience to write a truly influential how-to book.  So, while I enjoyed learning a bit more about her life and her experiences, I didn’t enjoy the entire thing.  This is not a book I would use for its intended purpose; just read it and enjoy Lilly’s company instead.

 

5. Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, Deborah Heiligman

Charles and Emma

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary tract on evolution and the fundamental ideas involved, in 1859. Nearly 150 years later, the theory of evolution continues to create tension between the scientific and religious communities. Challenges about teaching the theory of evolution in schools occur annually all over the country. This same debate raged within Darwin himself, and played an important part in his marriage: his wife, Emma, was quite religious, and her faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on a theory that continues to spark intense debates.

Deborah Heiligman’s new biography of Charles Darwin is a thought-provoking account of the man behind evolutionary theory: how his personal life affected his work and vice versa. The end result is an engaging exploration of history, science, and religion for young readers.

All I can say is I know way more about the Darwins now than I ever could have hoped to learn! Ha!

All joking aside, though, it was pretty cool that Heiligman decided to explore how the Darwins balanced a marriage with Charles’ discoveries and Emma’s Christianity.  As a person of faith, I can relate a lot to Emma’s struggles (and, of course, Charles’ internal dilemmas).  Their relationship is far more complicated than I might have imagined, and it’s really neat that we have a biography so focused on how a marriage may or may not work.

But still, it was pretty long and had a lot of detail about these two.  A good one for the history buff, for sure, but it’s no one’s light pleasure reading.

 

6. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca

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

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

I don’t know why, but for years I ignored this book because I assumed it was some type of sappy romance novel.  In fact, the only reason I even picked it up was because I found out du Maurier was friends with J. M. Barrie.  But, man, oh, man, was I surprised by what I found inside this little book!

Mystery.  Intrigue.  Murder.  Suicide.  Mental breakdowns.  This story offers so much to its readers, and you’re left flipping pages wondering what’s going to happen next.  A romance, sure, but this is also so much more!  I’m so glad I finally read this one.  And I am probably going to read My Cousin Rachel before the year is out.

 

7. The Only Pirate at the Party, Lindsey Stirling

The Only Pirate at the Party

Electronic and dancing violinist Lindsey Stirling shares her unconventional journey in an inspiring memoir filled with the energy, persistence, and humor that have helped her successfully pursue a passion outside the box.

A classically trained musician gone rogue, Lindsey Stirling is the epitome of independent, millennial-defined success: after being voted off the set of America’s Got Talent, she went on to amass more than ten million social media fans, record two full-length albums, release multiple hits with billions of YouTube views, and tour sold-out venues across the world.

Lindsey is not afraid to be herself. In fact, it’s her confidence and individuality that have propelled her into the spotlight. But the road hasn’t been easy. After being rejected by talent scouts, music reps, and eventually national television, Lindsey forged her own path, step by step. Here, for the first time, she shares every triumph and trial she has faced until now. Beginning in a humble yet charmed childhood, this book follows Lindsey through a humorous adolescence, to her life as a struggling musician, through her personal struggles with anorexia, and finally all the way to her success as a world-class entertainer. Lindsey’s magnetizing story is at once remarkable and universal—a testimony that there is no singular recipe for success. And a witness that, despite what people may say, sometimes it’s okay to be The Only Pirate at the Party.

Now, this is the kind of book I like to see from a YouTuber!  I also listened to this audiobook, and Lindsey’s voice brought to life all the great stories she shares about her life in this memoir.  You learn a lot about her, her family, and her faith, as well as her “journey to fame.”  She gives great insight into her own life, and she does so with a lot of grace, humility, and humor.  I didn’t know a lot about her before reading this book, and now I want to know more.  A great read for fans of Stirling everywhere.

 

8. Identical, Ellen Hopkins

Identical

Do twins begin in the womb?
Or in a better place?

Kaeleigh and Raeanne are identical down to the dimple. As daughters of a district-court judge father and a politician mother, they are an all-American family — on the surface. Behind the facade each sister has her own dark secret, and that’s where their differences begin.

For Kaeleigh, she’s the misplaced focus of Daddy’s love, intended for a mother whose presence on the campaign trail means absence at home. All that Raeanne sees is Daddy playing a game of favorites — and she is losing. If she has to lose, she will do it on her own terms, so she chooses drugs, alcohol, and sex.

Secrets like the ones the twins are harboring are not meant to be kept — from each other or anyone else. Pretty soon it’s obvious that neither sister can handle it alone, and one sister must step up to save the other, but the question is — who?

Another book with an excellent premise, for which I wasn’t in love with the execution.  This is the first of Hopkins’ books that I’ve actually finished.  Her stuff tends to lean toward “too dark” for me.  This one was no exception, but I was invested in the idea of the good twin/bad twin.  Unfortunately, I figured out the ultimate “twist” very early on.  (This isn’t unusual.  I can rarely finish an honest-to-goodness mystery without knowing whodunit ahead of time).  The knowing would have been fine, but I felt that the ultimate resolution didn’t quite live up to the buildup.  The ending was dark and really made you think, of course.  But I have an issue with some things being included in entertainment, and a lot of the little bits of this book fell in that category.  A great read for those so inclined, of course–I can see why many people love it!  Don’t let my “hating” cut into the Hopkins fan club.

 

9. Everybody, Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People, Bob Goff

Everybody Always

What happens when we stop avoiding difficult people and simply love everyone? 

In his wildly entertaining and inspiring follow-up to the New York Times bestselling phenomenon Love Does, Bob Goff takes readers on a life-altering journey into the secret of living without fear, care, constraint, or worry. The path toward the outsized, unfettered, liberated existence we all long for is found in a truth as simple to say as it is hard to do: love people, even the difficult ones, without distinction and without limits.

Driven by Bob’s trademark hilarious and insightful storytelling, Everybody, Always reveals the lessons Bob learned—often the hard way—about what it means to love without inhibition, insecurity, or restriction. From finding the right friends to discovering the upside of failure, Everybody, Always points the way to embodying love by doing the unexpected, the intimidating, the seemingly impossible. Whether losing his shoes while skydiving solo or befriending a Ugandan witch doctor, Bob steps into life with a no-limits embrace of others that is as infectious as it is extraordinarily ordinary. Everybody, Always reveals how we can do the same.

So, I already wrote a nice, long blog post about this one, which you can read here. So, for now, I’ll just lead with, I loved it!  It’s the perfect book for our current times.  And I highly recommend it to those looking to deepen their faith with a better understanding of unconditional love.

 

10. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert

Eat Pray Love

A celebrated writer’s irresistible, candid, and eloquent account of her pursuit of worldly pleasure, spiritual devotion, and what she really wanted out of life.

Around the time Elizabeth Gilbert turned thirty, she went through an early-onslaught midlife crisis. She had everything an educated, ambitious American woman was supposed to want—a husband, a house, a successful career. But instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she was consumed with panic, grief, and confusion. She went through a divorce, a crushing depression, another failed love, and the eradication of everything she ever thought she was supposed to be.

To recover from all this, Gilbert took a radical step. In order to give herself the time and space to find out who she really was and what she really wanted, she got rid of her belongings, quit her job, and undertook a yearlong journey around the world—all alone. Eat, Pray, Love is the absorbing chronicle of that year. Her aim was to visit three places where she could examine one aspect of her own nature set against the backdrop of a culture that has traditionally done that one thing very well. In Rome, she studied the art of pleasure, learning to speak Italian and gaining the twenty-three happiest pounds of her life. India was for the art of devotion, and with the help of a native guru and a surprisingly wise cowboy from Texas, she embarked on four uninterrupted months of spiritual exploration. In Bali, she studied the art of balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence. She became the pupil of an elderly medicine man and also fell in love the best way—unexpectedly.

An intensely articulate and moving memoir of self-discovery, Eat, Pray, Love is about what can happen when you claim responsibility for your own contentment and stop trying to live in imitation of society’s ideals. It is certain to touch anyone who has ever woken up to the unrelenting need for change.

I know, I know, I’m really late to this party, but I finally read Eat, Pray, Love.  In so many ways, I’m very glad I’ve waited until now to read it.  I really enjoyed the stories and the intimacy that Gilbert shares with the reader.  Not to sound cliche, but her journey “spoke to me” in unexpected ways.   I understand and agree with the large response to the book from those who believe it changed their lives.  I know it really impacted me, and I plan to revisit it with pencil and notebook to pull out more thoughts and ideas from its pages.

I will say that I noticed a sort of onslaught of unhappy readers, talking about how privileged Gilbert is, and how she wrote this really unhelpful, unhealthy, privileged book.  They feel that her growth in the book is shallow or insignificant to real life.  In many ways, I suppose they are right.  This isn’t a rags-to-riches tale, and Gilbert was able to travel the world on company’s dime for an entire year, and then live off the royalties of the book it produced.  Not really the plot of a struggle, sure.  But I don’t think Gilbert ever posits her text as anything other than what it is.  She’s not writing to enlighten others; she’s writing about her own enlightenment.  It’s her story, and she’s just fortunate enough to share it with the world.  So, I still see value in it, despite its place of privilege.

 

11. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth

Hailed as “a classic. . . . humorous, full of warmth and real invention” (The New Yorker), this beloved story -first published more than fifty years ago- introduces readers to Milo and his adventures in the Lands Beyond.

For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he’s got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different. Milo visits the Island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason! Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams.

First time with this childhood classic, and I really enjoyed it!  The wordplay was superb, and the message behind the story was very important (without being too preachy).  I felt that the book was a little long.  Had I picked it up as a kid, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.  Yet, I still liked it, and I’m glad I’ve actually read it now!  A good one for people of all sorts of different ages.

 

12. Herding Cats, Sarah Andersen

Herding Cats

“. . . author Sarah Andersen uses hilarious (and adorable) comics to illustrate the very specific growing pains that occur on your way to becoming a mature, put-together grownup. Andersen’s spot-on illustrations also show how to navigate this newfound adulthood once you arrive, since maturity is equally as hard to maintain as it is to find … ”
The Huffington Post

Sarah valiantly struggles with waking up in the morning, being productive, and dealing with social situations. Sarah’s Scribbles is the comic strip that follows her life, finding humor in living as an adulting introvert that is at times weird, awkward, and embarrassing.

I’ve always loved Sarah’s Scribbles, and I always will!  I was so happy to get my hands on a copy of the third set of comics, and Andersen did not disappoint.  I like how she’s worked on putting more exposition in the physical books, and her insights are much appreciated.  So real, so true, so me, her comics are wonderful.

 

And that’s it for March!  Keep an eye out for another featured review of a book I recently finished.  That’s next on the docket.  And after that, who knows?  Happy reading, everyone!

 

Cheers!

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Review: “Everybody, Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People” by Bob Goff

Hello, everyone!  It’s been a bit since I’ve shared a simple book review, so I’m happy to be adding this one now.

Everybody Always

I received an ARC of Everybody, Always from BookishFirst and Nelson Books in exchange for an honest review.  Before learning about this book, I had only heard of Love Does in passing, so I didn’t really know who Bob Goff was.  After finishing this one, however, I love his writing and look forward to reading more.

This is a more spiritual book than the ones I normally review, but I think the message of this book is super important.  I’m super excited to share my thoughts with you all!

You can also find this review on Goodreads.

In Everybody, Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People, Bob Goff talks about exactly that: the practice of showing Christ-like love to everyone we meet, particularly those we find most difficult. Using anecdotes from his own life experiences as illustrations, Goff reveals simple insights about Jesus, love, faith, and living more like Christ. This is an adorable book with an important, uplifting, and challenging message. I was brought to tears time and again by Goff’s simple message and beautiful stories.

This book was a relatively easy read, as almost each chapter was a short story about something and someone in Goff’s life. He uses each of these tales to draw connections to God, treated like lessons learned and insights discovered. While some of these lessons grew repetitive throughout the book, I found that this did not take away from the book’s overall message. Goff’s stories are super engaging; you can tell they are about real people in real situations (although I’m still in awe over how Bob ended up in some of these places! He does lead a truly extraordinary life…). Several of the individual stories stood out to me personally, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other readers have the same experience. There are certain people and places that each of us can relate to, and this book offers up a variety of potential connections. In each tale, everyone is led back to the same central tenet of the work: Christ-like love for all.

The man telling all of these stories and sharing these insights sounds positively delightful. Goff’s voice is wonderfully accessible. The book reads as though he’s sat down next to you to share his story. He is at times humorous, at others deadly serious, and the emotion he’s experiencing is carried clearly in the text. I admit that at times I found him leaning toward stock proverbs (things that sound profound, but, when you get right down to it, are pretty basic truths.). These tended to appear in the more repetitive passages of the book. These at times felt cliche and took away from the rest of the chapter. However, as a whole, the style of writing in this book was superb.

In Everybody, Always, I found the message to be both simple and necessary. This book isn’t hiding a complicated directive, although the call to action isn’t easy. Goff sticks to his original thesis throughout the entire book: love everybody, always, and it’s as simple as that. This book may find itself shelved near texts of complicated theology, but I think it needs to be distinguished from those. Goff spends more time looking at Christ manifested in humanity than dissecting Bible verses. (Both of these practices are important for spiritual growth, of course. But I was pleased to find that this book fell on the “people” side of this distinction.)

This book isn’t an apologetic to the rest of the world, addressing topics on which Christians have opinions and beliefs. Instead, Goff is talking to Christ-followers, challenging them on nearly every page to put aside differences and love the “difficult” people, anyway. This is a voice we as the Church need to hear right now, and I am so happy to see this message entering into the current cultural “fray.”

To speak briefly of the aesthetics of this book, I find the cover to be absolutely gorgeous. It’s eye-catching and bright, which would make me want to pull it off the shelf in a bookstore or library.

I am definitely going to be recommending this book. My copy is actually already on its way to my mom. I think it would be an excellent read for fellow Christ-followers. It’s a good, quick read that should be a must for anyone pursuing an understanding of God’s love for the world. It’s a great book for people at different stages in their spiritual journeys and relationships with God, but in particular those who are seeking a simplified faith. As Bob says himself, “We don’t need to make faith easier, because it’s not; we need to make it simpler, because it is.”

I give a happy five stars to Everybody, Always.

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Book Wrap-Up: February 2018

Full disclosure: February is my least favorite month of the whole year.  I tend to try to rush through it as fast as I can, because even though it’s the shortest month, it feels soooo long!

February 2018 was a slower reading month for me than January, but I still made it through quite the stack of books!  And, as usual, they are all over the place genre-wise.

 

1. The Real Peter Pan: J.M. Barrie and the Boy Who Inspired Him, Piers Dudgeon

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The world has long been captivated by the story of Peter Pan and the countless movies, plays, musicals, and books that retell the story of Peter, Wendy, and the Lost Boys. Now, in this revealing behind-the-scenes book, author Piers Dudgeon examines the fascinating and complex relationships among Peter Pan’s creator, J.M. Barrie, and the family of boys who inspired his work.

After meeting the Llewelyn Davies family in London’s Kensington Garden, Barrie struck up an intense friendship with the children and their parents. The innocence of Michael, the fourth of five brothers, went on to influence the creation of Barrie’s most famous character, Peter Pan. Barrie was so close to the Llewelyn Davies family that he became trustee and guardian to the boys following the deaths of their parents. Although the relationship between the boys and Barrie (and particularly between Barrie and Michael) was enduring, it was punctuated by the fiercest of tragedies. Throughout the heart-rending saga of Barrie’s involvement with the Llewelyn Davies brothers, it is the figure of Michael, the most original and inspirational of their number, and yet also the one whose fate is most pitiable, that stands out.

The Real Peter Pan is a captivating true story of childhood, friendship, war, love, and regret.

Spoiler Alert: Peter Pan isn’t the beautiful fairytale Disney has led you to believe, and James Matthew was even more of a sleazeball than Depp’s portrayal of him in Finding Neverland.  That being said, I am in love with the complexity and darkness of the lives of the families Barrie and Llewellyn-Davies.  I actually appreciate that such a beautiful exploration of innocence and death came out of these people and their lives.

This book was a lot of primary sources, which I enjoyed, especially as I got to read even more Barrie prose than I have to date.  And it was an easy-to-digest narrative with a natural build toward the ending you know is coming–at least, if you know anything about Michael Llewellyn-Davies.  That being said, I felt the title of this book was a little misleading.  There was very little in this text about Barrie himself, even though I was expecting it to focus on him.  Instead, the book is about Michael and his short life.  I’m glad to know more about Michael–the inspiration for Peter Pan–but I picked up the book expecting a biography on Barrie.  So, I’ll have to go out hunting for a more accurate biography of the author in the future!

This is a cautionary tale: read at your own risk.  Again, I cannot say enough about how different the real story of Peter Pan is from Disney’s watered down cartoon.  You’ve been warned!

 

2. The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman

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Will is the bearer of the knife. Now, accompanied by angels, his task is to deliver that powerful, dangerous weapon to Lord Asriel – by the command of his dying father.

But how can he go looking for Lord Asriel when Lyra is gone? Only with her help can he fathom the myriad plots and and intrigues that beset him.

The two great powers of the many worlds are lining up for war, and Will must find Lyra, for together they are on their way to battle, an inevitable journey that will even take them to the world of the dead…

I’ve already talked about “His Dark Materials” in my January Wrap-Up, and I don’t have a lot to add here.  I think this book suffers from the typical troubles of the third book in a trilogy–all those loose ends the author created have to be tied up, and quickly.  But still, the characters in this text stay true to their form, and that is something to appreciate.  And the ending of the book is satisfying, in that not-quite-perfect-so-it-feels-real kind of way.  This still isn’t my favorite fantasy series, and I’m not a huge fan of the story, but I do appreciate what Pullman accomplished with it.

 

3. Teach Me to Forget, Erica M. Chapman

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This is the story of Ellery, a girl who learns how to live while waiting for the date she chose to die.

Ellery’s bought the gun, made arrangements for her funeral, and even picked the day. A Wednesday. Everything has fallen into place.

Now all she has to do is die.

When her plans go awry and the gun she was going to kill herself with breaks, she does the one thing she has control over–return it and get a new one. After tormenting the crusty customer service associate by trying to return the gun with the wrong receipt, Ellery gets caught by the security guard who also happens to be someone she knows–the annoyingly perfect Colter Sawyer from her English class.

Colter quickly uncovers what she’s hiding and is determined to change her mind. After confessing a closely held secret of his own, he promises not to tell hers. Ellery tries to fight her attraction to him as the shadows of her past cling tight around her, but when she’s faced with another tragedy, she must decide whether she can learn to live with what she’s done or follow through with her plan to die.

Trigger Warnings: Suicide, Suicidal Ideation, Depression, Loss of a loved one, Self-harm.

I’m from a very small town.  At the end of January, we lost three young men to suicide.  They were all close in age, and one of them was a close friend of my family.  At the time, I was feeling very broken and discouraged.  How do you cope with such unexpected, devastating loss?  I knew I had this book on my shelves, and so I picked it up looking for understanding and perhaps a sense of closure.

The situations in this book are bleak.  The trigger warning listed in the description is absolutely necessary.  And yet, Chapman’s exploration of grief, loss, healing, and suffering is beautiful and captivating.  I can tell that she honestly sought to explore the mind of one with suicidal thoughts, to give voice to the mental agony associated with such hopelessness.  And, in many ways, it shows.

I have a few concerns with this book that have kept me from completely loving it, including the situations that have led Ellery to attempt suicide.  We have to be so careful about associating traumatic events with depression, because the reality is the things Ellery faces could affect anyone, even if they had not suffered the losses she did.  I also did not care for the romance between Ellery and Colter.  This is perhaps my age showing, but anyone in Ellery’s situation is in no position to be getting into relationships… And my interpretation of her situation is, should she and Colter dissolve, so might her resolve to go on living.

So, not a perfect book by any means.  But I was so grateful for this story and its message at the time that I read it.

 

4. To Catch a Pirate, Jade Parker

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Once caught, it’s harder still to let a pirate go

When Annalisa Townsend’s ship is set upon by pirates in search of her father’s treasure, one of the crew, James Sterling, discovers her in the hold. When he moves to take her necklace, she begs him not to, as it is all she has left of her mother. He accepts a kiss in exchange for the necklace. “A fair trade, m’lady,” he tells her afterward, before disappearing.
A year later, with a forged letter of marque, Annalisa is intent on hunting down the wretched James Sterling and reclaiming her father’s treasure from him. But now she’s in danger of him stealing something far more vulnerable this time: her heart.

Not gonna lie, the only reason I read this book was to fulfill the POPSUGAR Challenge Criteria: A book set at sea.  I have read this book before, and I remembered really liking the dynamics between the two main characters.  This time around, I found it a little more cheesy.  But, hey, what do you expect from a romance, right?  A fun, fluffy read perfect for Valentine’s Day.

 

5. The Magicians, Lev Grossman

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A thrilling and original coming-of-age novel for adults about a young man practicing magic in the real world.

Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A senior in high school, he’s still secretly preoccupied with a series of fantasy novels he read as a child, set in a magical land called Fillory. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery.

He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. Something is missing, though. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he dreamed it would. After graduation he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real. But the land of Quentin’s fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he could have imagined. His childhood dream becomes a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

At once psychologically piercing and magnificently absorbing, The Magicians boldly moves into uncharted literary territory, imagining magic as practiced by real people, with their capricious desires and volatile emotions. Lev Grossman creates an utterly original world in which good and evil aren’t black and white, love and sex aren’t simple or innocent, and power comes at a terrible price.

I have a more full review of this book on Goodreads, but the long and short of it is I did not enjoy this book.  I like the Harry Potter-esque themes, several shades darker to reflect “real life.” And I like Grossman’s writing.  However, I found the plot to move far too quickly (there was a lot of ground covered for a single book; I’m terrified to think how much more may be waiting in the rest of the series…!), and I hate the characters.  None of them have truly redeeming qualities, which perhaps is getting at the commentary Grossman has with Rowling on what actual magicians/wizards would have to deal with in the real world.  But that makes it super hard to root for anyone, “good” or “bad.”

Actually, I’ve found myself to be quite partial to the TV series.  I enjoy Elliott and Penny so much more in their film roles than I do on the page, and I actually support the rewrite of Janet to Margot. The plot in the show is slowed down a good bit, and you get to know the characters in ways you don’t in the text.

(And, honestly, I had no expectations for the show.  I only watched it because Felicia Day shows up in Season 3.  Love her!)

All that to say, I may give the next book a chance.  A friend of mine mentioned the series gets better, so we’ll have to see…

 

6. The War I Finally Won, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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When Ada’s clubfoot is surgically fixed at last, she knows for certain that she’s not what her mother said she was—damaged, deranged, crippled mentally as well as physically. She’s not a daughter anymore, either. What is she?

World War II continues, and Ada and her brother, Jamie, are living with their loving legal guardian, Susan, in a borrowed cottage on the estate of the formidable Lady Thorton—along with Lady Thorton herself and her daughter, Maggie. Life in the crowded cottage is tense enough, and then, quite suddenly, Ruth, a Jewish girl from Germany, moves in. A German? The occupants of the house are horrified. But other impacts of the war become far more frightening. As death creeps closer to their door, life and morality during wartime grow more complex. Who is Ada now? How can she keep fighting? And who will she struggle to save?

I am completely in love with this duology.  These two books are absolutely beautiful. Everyone, of every age, needs to read them at least once.

The War That Saved My Life is a beautiful story of love and acceptance, and the true meaning of family.  Ada learns so much about life in her first adventure, and this follow-up continues that education perfectly.  It’s wonderful to see her wrestle with ideas of self-acceptance, prejudice, and politics, and to try and understand war, grief, and healing.  This story is beyond accessible, and yet it’s so complex, even I felt that I followed Ada through the emotions and thoughts she experiences.

I can’t say enough good things, so just go read them yourself.  The sooner, the better!

 

7. The Upside of Unrequited, Becky Albertalli

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Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love—she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness—except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny and flirtatious and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan with a season pass to the Ren Faire, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?

I love Becky Albertalli’s writing so much (and I cannot wait to see “Love, Simon” when it comes out!).  This book was no exception.  Molly is a different sort of protagonist from most YA stories, and some of what she faces is a different sort of struggle.  There is decent representation in this book, and the topics addressed are real and present today.

This book, in all its realness, made me extremely angry at times.  I seek solace in the thought that I believe this is what Albertalli wanted to happen.  But conversations surrounding popularity, body image, and self-acceptance were infuriating to me.  The story ends with the OTP I wanted, but good grief, I wasn’t sure we’d ever get there.  This plot reminds me that, in terms of behaviors of students in schools, we have a long way to go before bullying, stereotyping, and general “clique”ness can be fully eradicated.

 

8. It’s Not Like It’s a Secret, Misa Sugiura

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Sixteen-year-old Sana Kiyohara has too many secrets. Some are small, like how it bothers her when her friends don’t invite her to parties. Some are big, like that fact that her father may be having an affair. And then there’s the one that she can barely even admit to herself—the one about how she might have a crush on her best friend.

When Sana and her family move to California she begins to wonder if it’s finally time for some honesty, especially after she meets Jamie Ramirez. Jamie is beautiful and smart and unlike anyone Sana’s ever known. There are just a few problems: Sana’s new friends don’t trust Jamie’s crowd; Jamie’s friends clearly don’t want her around anyway; and a sweet guy named Caleb seems to have more-than-friendly feelings for her. Meanwhile, her dad’s affair is becoming too obvious to ignore anymore.

Sana always figured that the hardest thing would be to tell people that she wants to date a girl, but as she quickly learns, telling the truth is easy… what comes after it, though, is a whole lot more complicated.

I’ll be honest–I wanted to like this book more than I actually did.  I really like Sana and Jamie, and the relationship that they have.  However, the drama and conflict in this story is upsetting and largely left open-ended.

I read a few Goodreads reviews before starting this book (a common practice I have, to figure out why someone did or did not like a particular story and to see if I think it will be a good fit for me).  I saw several people complain about the racism and the “infidelity” in the book.  At first, I brushed this off, assuming that Sugiura was going for authentic, which may be off-putting to some people.

Unfortunately, after finishing the book, I have to agree with a lot of those reviews–while the racism is, perhaps, authentic, it’s never really addressed for what it is–something very wrong and what should not be tolerated.  And while the complexity of the love triangle Sana finds herself in makes for high drama, I felt the whole escapade with Caleb to be unnecessary and harmful.  So, while the story is beautiful (and, again, excellent representation!), it didn’t quite take me to the place I expected, and I found several problems with its execution.

 

And that’s it for February!  March is already shaping up to be a busier reading month, so I look forward to sharing my thoughts on those books in April.

 

Cheers!

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Book Wrap-Up: January 2018

 

I know, I know–this post is soooo late!  But I’d worked so hard on it, I didn’t want to leave it hanging…

On the flip side, a February Wrap-Up will hopefully come sooner, rather than later! 🙂

1. The Ethan I Was Before, Ali Standish

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Ethan had been many things. He was always ready for adventure and always willing to accept a dare, especially from his best friend, Kacey. But that was before. Before the accident that took Kacey from him. Before his family moved from Boston to the small town of Palm Knot, Georgia.

Palm Knot may be tiny, but it’s the home of possibility and second chances. It’s also home to Coralee, a girl with a big personality and even bigger stories. Coralee may be just the friend Ethan needs, except Ethan isn’t the only one with secrets. Coralee’s are catching up with her, and what she’s hiding might be putting both their lives at risk.

This book was a beautiful exploration of grief and guilt for young audiences.  Ethan is a touching narrator, full of emotions and struggle that feel real and potent to the reader.  Nothing is simplified in this story, despite the fact that it’s written for a young audience (and I think that’s a great thing!).  The story is also complex, with layers and intertwining lifelines and twists… Standish does an excellent job of fleshing out a whole series of characters, each with unique traits.  I don’t see this one becoming a “favorite” for the year, but I still appreciate what this book accomplishes.

 

2. The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, Jonas Jonasson

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From the author of The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared comes a picaresque tale of how one person’s actions can have far-reaching-even global-consequences On June 14, 2007, the king and the prime minister of Sweden went missing from a gala banquet at the royal castle. Later it was said that both had fallen ill, but the truth is different.

The real story starts much earlier, in 1961, with the birth of Nombeko Mayeki in a shack in Soweto. Nombeko was fated to grow up fast and die early in her poverty-stricken township, be it from drugs, alcohol, or just plain despair. But Nombeko takes a different path. She finds work as a housecleaner and eventually makes her way up to the position of chief advisor, at the helm of one of the world’s most secret projects. Here is where the tale merges with then diverges from reality. South Africa developed six nuclear missiles in the 1980s, then voluntarily dismantled them in 1994.

This is the story of the seventh missile, the one that was never supposed to have existed. Nombeko Mayeki knows too much about it, and now she’s on the run from both the South African justice system and the most terrifying secret service in the world. The fate of the planet now lies in Nombeko’s hands. Jonasson introduces us to a cast of eccentrics: a nerve-damaged American Vietnam deserter, twin brothers who are officially only one person, three careless Chinese girls, an angry young woman, a potato-growing baroness, the Swedish king and the prime minister. Quirky and utterly unique, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is a charming and humorous account of one young woman’s unlikely adventure.

I’ve said this before, and I will continue to say it: For all of the reasons I loved The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, I hated this book.  Where the characters in the first book were lovable, none of the characters in this story had redeeming characteristics.  The plot itself was so steeped in African and Swedish history, I was simply lost (and yes, this is a failing on my part and on the part of the American education system, but still–I couldn’t even enjoy the story!).  The story line itself ran a little long, with a lot of extra details that never actually connected back.  And the conclusion of the book was largely disappointing.  This is the first book of 2018 that I did not enjoy, and I have a feeling it may make a “Worst of” list by the end of the year.

 

3. Pashmina, Nidhi Chanani

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Priyanka Das has so many unanswered questions: Why did her mother abandon her home in India years ago? What was it like there? And most importantly, who is her father, and why did her mom leave him behind? But Pri’s mom avoids these questions–the topic of India is permanently closed.

For Pri, her mother’s homeland can only exist in her imagination. That is, until she find a mysterious pashmina tucked away in a forgotten suitcase. When she wraps herself in it, she is transported to a place more vivid and colorful than any guidebook or Bollywood film. But is this the real India? And what is that shadow lurking in the background? To learn the truth, Pri must travel farther than she’s ever dared and find the family she never knew.

In this heartwarming graphic novel debut, Nidhi Chanani weaves a tale about the hardship and self-discovery that is born from juggling two cultures and two worlds.

I thought this story was delightful and adorable.  I’ve seen a few negative reviews that focus on the age of Pri, and I do agree that her age seems at times incongruous with her behaviors.   At the same time, I think it’s easy to overlook that and still appreciate what the book is saying.  I appreciated the look into a culture that isn’t my own, and I like the choice to have a protagonist learning about herself.  The pictures are beautiful, and the use of color vs. gray-scale is excellent.  This book is certainly for young audiences, but I think several age groups can gain something from it.

 

4. The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman

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Lost in a new world, Lyra finds Will—a boy on the run, a murderer—a worthy and welcome ally. For this is a world where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and witches share the skies with troops of angels.

Each is searching—Lyra for the meaning of Dark Matter, Will for his missing father—but what they find instead is a deadly secret, a knife of untold power. And neither Lyra nor Will suspects how tightly their lives, their loves, and their destinies are bound together… until they are split apart.

I read “His Dark Materials” trilogy when I was in high school, and so I am only revisiting the series now.  Many elements of these books disturb me.  I have a hard time reconciling the content with the prescribed age group.  However, I have a lot of respect for Pullman’s storytelling abilities.  The layers of these books are well-constructed, intricate.  And while I at times find the elements uncomfortable and dark, I understand the talent behind them.

 

5. Uncommon Type: Some Stories, Tom Hanks

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A collection of seventeen wonderful short stories showing that two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks is as talented a writer as he is an actor.

A gentle Eastern European immigrant arrives in New York City after his family and his life have been torn apart by his country’s civil war. A man who loves to bowl rolls a perfect game–and then another and then another and then many more in a row until he winds up ESPN’s newest celebrity, and he must decide if the combination of perfection and celebrity has ruined the thing he loves. An eccentric billionaire and his faithful executive assistant venture into America looking for acquisitions and discover a down and out motel, romance, and a bit of real life. These are just some of the tales Tom Hanks tells in this first collection of his short stories. They are surprising, intelligent, heartwarming, and, for the millions and millions of Tom Hanks fans, an absolute must-have!

Featuring additional performances by Peter Gerety, Peter Scolari, Cecily Strong, Holland Taylor, and Wilmer Valderrama on “Stay With Us.”

I think Steve Martin says it best in his blurb on the back of this book: “It turns out that Tom Hanks is also a wise and hilarious writer with an endlessly surprising mind. Damn it.”  These stories are delightful, thought-provoking, educational… I hate to say I was surprised, but I honestly was.  I feel like Hanks would have done himself a service if he had published these in a two- or three-part volume series, because the single book is quite the tome (it weighs in at just over 400 pages).  By the end, I was a little burnt out on short stories featuring typewriters.  However, the quality and texture of the stories never dwindled.   Fans of fiction and of Hanks will like this collection, a whole lot.

6. Unraveling Oliver, Liz Nugent

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In this “compelling, clever, and dark” (Heat magazine) thriller, a man’s shocking act of savagery stuns a local community–and the revelations that follow will keep you gripped until the very last page. This work of psychological suspense, a #1 bestseller in Ireland, is perfect for fans of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Ware.

“I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.”

So begins Liz Nugent’s astonishing debut novel—a chilling, elegantly crafted, and psychologically astute exploration of the nature of evil.

Oliver Ryan, handsome, charismatic, and successful, has long been married to his devoted wife, Alice. Together they write and illustrate award-winning children’s books; their life together one of enviable privilege and ease—until, one evening after a delightful dinner, Oliver delivers a blow to Alice that renders her unconscious, and subsequently beats her into a coma.

In the aftermath of such an unthinkable event, as Alice hovers between life and death, the couple’s friends, neighbors, and acquaintances try to understand what could have driven Oliver to commit such a horrific act. As his story unfolds, layers are peeled away to reveal a life of shame, envy, deception, and masterful manipulation.

With its alternating points of view and deft prose, Unraveling Oliver is “a page-turning, one-sitting read from a brand new master of psychological suspense” (Sunday Independent) that details how an ordinary man can transform into a sociopath.

This book is terrifying, in that bone-chilling way that makes you think, “Holy crap, this could actually happen…”  In the same vein as Psycho and its descendants, this story explores the mind of a man with a frightening absence of remorse.  I love the way Nugent uses multiple perspectives to reveal the reality of what happened behind this story.  Everyone has a tiny piece of the puzzle, but it’s only when the reader sees every story set side-by-side that we can see the reality of Oliver.  Frightening, dark, and not for the faint of heart, this story was the exact type of thriller that I love.

 

7. We Are Okay, Nina LaCour

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You go through life thinking there’s so much you need…

Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother.

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

I need to start with a disclaimer here: I listened to the audiobook of this book, and I feel like I missed so much because of the format.  I fully intend to actually read this book before the year is out.

This story is beautiful.  The characters, touching.  Like The Ethan I Was Before, it’s an honest exploration of grief on a level that young people could understand.  But, even more so than the first book, I think this is a story that will touch individuals of all ages.  The story is recognizable, and yet it captures unique perspectives and ideas in ways not yet visited.  And I haven’t even touched on its representation!  Let’s just say, we need even more books like this one as we go forward (and that responsibility should not fall solely on LaCour, even though she’s shown herself to be capable).

 

8. Little & Lion, Brandy Colbert

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When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself–or worse.

Okay, another disclaimer: This is the first book I have ever personally encountered with a bisexual main character.  For this reason, I think I loved the story more than others who’ve read more books with subjects like this, because I’m unaware of overused tropes (this is the first I’ve seen them!).

love that this story is about siblings.  The relationship between Lionel and Suzette is excellent and handled so well.  The complexity of their connection is enjoyable and torturing, at the same time.  As a sister, I felt this story on a very deep level, and I appreciate Colbert for tackling these two characters.  I do feel that the book tries to tackle too many issues all at once.  In fact, the book touches on almost every major social issue we talk about in culture today, at some point.  I think the plot and characters may have been stronger with a little more focus.  I still loved this book, and would consider it my favorite for January 2018.

 

9. The Storyteller’s Daughter, Cameron Dokey

9

In a faraway kingdom, a king has been betrayed. Deeply hurt and bitterly angry, he vows never to be deceived again. Unfortunately, the king’s plan to protect himself will endanger all of the realm’s young women, unless one of them will volunteer to marry the king – and surrender her life.
To everyone’s relief and horror, one young woman steps forward. The daughter of a legendary storyteller, Shahrazad believes it is her destiny to accept this risk and sacrifice herself.

On the night of her wedding to the king, Shahrazad begins to weave a tale. Fascinated, the king lets her live night after night. Just when Shahrazad dares to believe that she has found a way to keep her life and an unexpected love – a treacherous plot will disrupt her plan. Now she can only hope that love is strong enough to save her.

This is one of my favorite books of all time.  I don’t know that I’d ever make it through the original Arabian Nights, but this adaptation makes me want to try.

My favorite element of the book is the way in which the stories Shahrazad tells blend into the overarching plot.  I like the interruption of the short tales, and the way the reader can see how they connect back to the rest of the story (none of the storyteller’s stories are actually random, you know).

I also really love the attitude toward women in this book.  There are certainly bad eggs present for driving the plot, but considering the cultural foundations of the story, Shahrazad has a lot of agency.  And Shahrayer is a worthy companion to such a strong woman.

If you haven’t read Cameron Dokey’s adaptations before, I think this is a great one to start with, and then you should check out the others, too!

 

10. This Is Really Happening, Erin Chack

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BuzzFeed senior writer Erin Chack provides a collection of personal essays for the Snapchat generation.

Erin recounts everything from meeting her soulmate at age 14 to her first chemotherapy session at age 19 to what really goes on behind the scenes at a major Internet media company. She authentically captures the agony and the ecstasy of the millennial experience, whether it’s her first kiss (“Sean’s tongue! In my mouth! Slippery and wet like a slug in the rain.”) or her struggles with anxiety (“When people throw caution to the wind, I am stuck imagining the poor soul who has to break his back sweeping caution into a dustpan”).

Yet Erin also offers a fresh perspective on universal themes of resilience and love as she writes about surviving cancer, including learning of her mother’s own cancer diagnosis within the same year, and her attempts to hide the diagnosis from friends to avoid “un-normaling” everything.

This book is marketed as an easy-to-digest memoir for teens, but I think it is so much more than that.  Chack’s voice is authentic and approachable, and her stories are so real they can be felt.  She writes to a young audience, but I don’t think that necessarily isolates the topics she’s discussing.

I am, of course, a huge fan of memoirs in general.  So I naturally enjoyed this one a lot, just by its nature.  But I also think this goes beyond a lot of the semi-autobiographical books people write nowadays and attempts to talk about deep themes we see and know in our own world.

In short, I laughed, I cried, I said, “Girl, me too!”

 

11. Fans of the Impossible Life, Kate Scelsa

11

Mira is starting over at Saint Francis Prep. She promised her parents she would at least try to pretend that she could act like a functioning human this time, not a girl who can’t get out of bed for days on end, who only feels awake when she’s with Sebby.

Jeremy is the painfully shy art nerd at Saint Francis who’s been in self-imposed isolation after an incident that ruined his last year of school. When he sees Sebby for the first time across the school lawn, it’s as if he’s been expecting this blond, lanky boy with mischief glinting in his eye.

Sebby, Mira’s gay best friend, is a boy who seems to carry sunlight around with him. Even as life in his foster home starts to take its toll, Sebby and Mira together craft a world of magic rituals and impromptu road trips, designed to fix the broken parts of their lives.

As Jeremy finds himself drawn into Sebby and Mira’s world, he begins to understand the secrets that they hide in order to protect themselves, to keep each other safe from those who don’t understand their quest to live for the impossible.

I’m beginning to notice an unfortunate trend with many LGBTQIA+ books, which is that we quickly develop a main character with a unique identity, but then we don’t know what to do with them… This book had a great premise with an awesome cast of characters, but I was left questioning why the plot took the turns it did.  I really liked Mira and Jeremy, but I didn’t enjoy Sebby, which made a good bit of this book hard to swallow.

I think books like this often try to tackle too much, so what they do address feels watered down or skimmed over.  This story is still super important, but it’s not my favorite YA text on subjects like it.

(Also, it was recommended to me based on my love of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and, unfortunately, I see absolutely no similarities.  This book brought with it none of the affection I had for Charlie, Sam, and Patrick).

 

12. One Was Lost, Natalie D. Richards

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Damaged. Deceptive. Dangerous. Darling. Are they labels or a warning? The answer could cost Sera everything.

Murder, justice, and revenge were so not a part of the plan when Sera set out on her senior camping trip. After all, hiking through the woods is supposed to be safe and uneventful.

Then one morning the group wakes up groggy, confused, and with words scrawled on their wrists: Damaged. Deceptive. Dangerous. Darling. Their supplies? Destroyed. Half their group? Gone. Their chaperone? Unconscious. Worst of all, they find four dolls acting out a murder—dolls dressed just like them.

Suddenly it’s clear; they’re being hunted. And with the only positive word on her wrist, Sera falls under suspicion…

All I can say is, whoa!

This was a great spine-chilling read, with lots of unbelievable twists and turns.  The plot was so complex, it actually had me stumped for quite a bit of it (which is super hard to do, so props to the author on that one!).  I did end up feeling that the story got a little long.  There was a few too many “Is he, or isn’t she…?” moments, but this still fed into a great mystery and a lot of suspense.  It’s pretty impressive when an author can make you think, Wait…is the narrator behind this?!

 

13. You Know Me Well, Nina LaCour and David Levithan

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Who knows you well? Your best friend? Your boyfriend or girlfriend? A stranger you meet on a crazy night? No one, really?

Mark and Kate have sat next to each other for an entire year, but have never spoken. For whatever reason, their paths outside of class have never crossed.

That is, until Kate spots Mark miles away from home, out in the city for a wild, unexpected night. Kate is lost, having just run away from a chance to finally meet the girl she has been in love with from afar. Mark, meanwhile, is in love with his best friend Ryan, who may or may not feel the same way.

When Kate and Mark meet up, little do they know how important they will become to each other—and how, in a very short time, they will know each other better than any of the people who are supposed to know them more.

Told in alternating points of view by Nina LaCour and David Levithan, You Know Me Well is a story about navigating the joys and heartaches of first love, one truth at a time.

I liked this book a lot better than Fans of the Impossible Life, even though it’s not my favorite LaCour or Levithan story.  These characters are adorable, and I LOVE that the focus of the story is on the friendship between Kate and Mark.  It’s unconventional, which helps keep this story distinguishable from others like it.  I also liked how this entire plot addresses the complexity of friendship.  Yes, romance is still real and accounted for in the book, but so much of the characters’ time is spent looking at platonic relationships and how to navigate them.  I’ve felt inundated with romance for far too long, so having a story like this (and Little & Lion) was like a breath of fresh air.

My one complaint was the ways in which the plot jumped back and forth in time.  Because I was listening to the audiobook, I had a hard time keeping track of what was happening when.  Perhaps this is more noticeable and navigable in the printed text, so I may give this one another shot on paper!

 

And that’s it for January!  I really had planned to publish this in that first week of February, but c’est la vie.

See you with a February wrap-up soon! (But no promises…ha!)

Cheers!

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Best Reads of 2017

Hello, fellow book nerds!

 

This week, I’ve been feeling a little under the weather.  I had hoped to get this post up earlier, but here we are!

 

I posted recently about my completed POPSUGAR Challenge.  This post is going to be much smaller, as I reflect back on my Top 10 Books/Series that I read in 2017.  While I’ve read dozens of wonderful stories this year, I’m excited to focus in on these titles!

 

#1: Beartown, Fredrik Backman

Beartown

I absolutely love Fredrik Backman, and I was totally blown away by this book.  This story is very different from Backman’s traditional topics, but he handles the subject matter like a pro.  I loved the setting, the characters, the conclusion… everything!  I especially enjoy how much time Backman spends developing individual characters, even those on the sides of the plot, and expertly winding their lives together.  I think this book was very timely, and it gives a gritty look at culture and how we handle controversy when our “celebrities” are involved.

 

#2: The Child Thief, Brom

The child thief

This book is a dark spin-off on the Peter Pan myth.  Anyone who knows me knows I love Peter Pan.  I actually avoided this book for years, because Brom’s Peter is an antihero with a serious dark streak.  Despite my worries about whether or not I’d like this Peter, it turns out that The Child Thief was the version of Peter’s story that I’d been missing!  I absolutely love Brom’s characters.  His story is the perfect blend of darkness and a harsh look at the reality of the human condition.  I’m so glad I finally read this one, and I have a feeling I will be revisiting Peter Pan, Child Thief in the near future.

 

#3: Cyclone, Doreen Cronin

cyclone

I really enjoyed this cute, middle-grade novel about a girl learning how to forgive herself.  These characters are so lovable and real; it breaks your heart as your reading.  I think this story belongs alongside Wonder and others like it–books that inspire young people by telling a pretty honest truth about the world.  I think my favorite part about this book is how true Cronin stays to her characters; she doesn’t fill their heads with thoughts middle-schoolers couldn’t have.  She uses a very normal young person voice to help them and her readers learn and grow on their own terms.

 

#4: Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, Jenny Lawson

furiously happy

This book had me literally laughing out loud!  I listened to the audiobook, and having Lawson read her stories to me made this book even more hilarious.  While the stories she tells have a lot of humor in them, she’s also very authentic and real about her mental health and her struggles.  She proves that talking about things like depression, insomnia, and anxiety don’t have to always be somber and serious.  In fact, she does a great job of “normalizing” mental illness without downplaying its significance.  I highly, highly recommend this book.

#5: The Girl with All the Gifts, M. R. Carey

girl with all the gifts

I did not expect to enjoy this book at all, but I ended up really liking it!  I’m not a fan of dystopian worlds, especially those that involve the undead, so I was taken by surprise when I started feeling for these “hungries”!  This is another story with excellent characters who, though fairly blatant stereotypes, fit well into this plot.  And the story itself moves at the perfect pace.  It doesn’t race through, too focused on action, and it doesn’t drag either.  A book totally outside my typical genre, this story grew my interest in science fiction and horror.

On the topic of the sequel, however… I didn’t like The Boy on the Bridge as much as The Girl with All the Gifts.  I felt like the characters from the original story were pretty much replicated in new bodies for the second story.  And I don’t think the conclusion justified an entire book to build up to it; it would have made a decent epilogue to the first story.

 

#6: The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

the hate u give

I feel like almost everyone who read this book in 2017 is going to put it on their “Best of” lists.  There’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said, tweeted, written, and so on about this book.  Thomas has captured a part of American culture that needs to be talked about more.  And she does it through the eyes of a young person, still learning, and yet caught up in the middle of the struggle.  If you haven’t yet read this book, make sure it’s on your 2018 TBR!

 

#7: Library Wars, Kiiro Yumi

library wars

This manga series was a lot of fun to read.  I really liked the characters (can you tell I tend to prefer books that are character driven…? ha!) and the way they grew through the 15 volumes.  I also liked the subject matter, which felt like a fresh look at Fahrenheit 451.  The inclusion of librarians in the fight to end censorship and to protect privacy was just the icing on the cake!

 

 

 

#8: The Lunar Chronicles, Marissa Meyer

lunar chronicles

Yes, I did listen to this entire series over the course of only a couple months–including Fairest and Stars Above. I tend to avoid books that show up on popular reads lists, so I was very wary about starting Cinder. Now, I’m just happy I had the whole series published to blow through, because waiting for Winter to be released would have been torture!  Another book (series) with great characters who feel very real.  I also liked the way Meyer layered the stories, so you weren’t experiencing a horrendous info-dump in the first book.  It shows a talent for good storytelling.  While I cannot say I loved everything about this series, I can say this is one of the few teen fantasy/adventure series I’ve enjoyed beginning to end.

 

#9: Not a Drop to DrinkIn a Handful of Dust, Mindy McGinnis

This little duology was dark, twisted, bare, and absolutely fabulous.  McGinnis is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors for her excellent female leads.  Lynn and Lucy in these two books are so badass!  I could go on and on about how great these books are, but rather than repeat myself, I’ll just refer you to my blog post where I discuss them in great detail.

 

#10: The War That Saved My Life, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

war that saved my life

I picked up this children’s book not knowing much about it other than that it had won an award, so I was amazed by the emotional roller coaster inside.  Ada is an amazing character, and her story is just beautiful.  Being raised in the American education system (yuck), I only have minimal knowledge of what it was like in Europe during the World Wars.  This book shed more light than I had gleaned from any textbook, and it was in such subtle ways, tucked around a tale of love and family and friendship.  I hope to read Brubaker Bradley’s sequel this year.

 

I’m contemplating doing a Worst of 2017, but we will have to see how fast I recover…  In the meantime, have fun reflecting on your own favorite books of the year!  If you’ve read one of these, or have a recommendation from your 2017 reads, leave a comment below!

 

Cheers.

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2017 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge

For the last three years, I’ve taken on the POPSUGAR Reading Challenge for each year.  I set out to read and/or listen to books that meet all of the criteria on the list, and, when I’m feeling extra competitive, I try to make sure I have an individual book to meet each item on the POPSUGAR list!  I’ve just finished my Challenge for 2017 (with a matter of days to spare!) and I thought I’d share with you all the books I listened to and read to get there!

Small Disclaimer: Several books I’ve read this year meet each of the criteria on this list, and even the titles I’m going to mention may fit into more than one category.  I also read more books this year than are represented in this list (sometimes you just have to read a book because you think it sounds good, not because it fits into the challenge!).  In fact, several books on this list weren’t even in my Top Reads for the year.  However, I’m a very competitive person, and so my main goal in the creation of this list was to ensure that I had at least one unique title to meet each of the individual components on my checklist.

So, here it is! My list of books that fill the list of the 2017 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge!

PopSugar Challenge 2017 Book Covers

  • A book recommended by a librarian
    • The Child Thief, Brom
  • A book that’s been on your TBR list for way too long
    • 1984, George Orwell
  • A book of letters
    • The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis
  • An audiobook
    • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, Jenny Lawson
    • Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, Jenny Lawson
  • A book by a person of color
    • The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
  • A book with one of the four seasons in the title
    • The Winter People, Jennifer McMahon
    • Endymion Spring, Matthew Skelton
    • I Know What You Did Last Summer, Lois Duncan
    • Autumn Falls, Bella Thorne
  • A book that’s a story within a story
    • Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell
  • A book with multiple authors
    • As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride, Cary Elwes, other cast members
  • An espionage thriller
    • Little Brother, Cory Doctorow
    • Homeland, Cory Doctorow
  • A book with a cat on the cover
    • The Cat Who Went to Heaven, Elizabeth Coatsworth
  • A book by an author who uses a pseudonym
    • We Were Liars, E. Lockhart
  • A bestseller from a genre you don’t normally read
    • Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
  • A book by or about a person with a disability
    • Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening, John Elder Robison
    • We Are the Ants, Shaun David Hutchinson
  • A book involving travel
    • On the Road, Jack Kerouac
  • A book with a subtitle
    • Bitter is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry a Prada Bag to the Unemployment  Office, Jen Lancaster
  • A book published in 2017
    • Beartown, Fredrik Backman
  • A book involving a mythical creature
    • The Girl with All the Gifts, M. R. Carey
    • The Boy on the Bridge, M. R. Carey
  • A book you’ve read before that never fails to make you smile
    • Never Flirt with Puppy Killers: And Other Better Book Titles, Dan Wilbur
  • A book about food
    • It Was Me All Along, Andie Mitchell
  • A book with career advice
    • Gracious: A Practical Primer on Charm, Tact, and Unsinkable Strength, Kelly Williams Brown
  • A book from a nonhuman perspective
    • Watership Down, Richard Adams
  • A steampunk novel
    • The Boy with the Cuckoo Clock Heart, Mathias Malzieu
  • A book with a red spine
    • Library Wars, Kiiro Yumi
  • A book set in the wilderness
    • Not a Drop to Drink, Mindy McGinnis
    • In a Handful of Dust, Mindy McGinnis
  • A book you loved as a child
    • Della Splatnuk, Birthday Girl, Lisa McCourt, Pat Porter
  • A book by an author from a country you’ve never visited
    • Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty
  • A book with a title that’s a character’s name
    • Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
  • A novel set during wartime
    • The War That Saved My Life, Kelly Brubaker Bradley
  • A book with an unreliable narrator
    • The Facts Speak for Themselves, Brock Cole
  • A book with pictures
    • Big Mushy Happy Lump, Sarah Andersen
  • A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you
    • Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Perez
  • A book about an interesting woman
    • She Persisted, Chelsea Clinton, Alexandra Boiger
  • A book set in two different time periods
    • March, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
  • A book with a month or day of the week in the title
    • The October List, Jeffery Deaver
    • Freaky Monday, Mary Rodgers & Heather Hach
  • A book set in a hotel
    • Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson
  • A book written by someone you admire
    • What Happened, Hillary Clinton
  • A book that’s becoming a movie in 2017
    • Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon
  • A book set around a holiday other than Christmas
    • Narvla’s Celtic New Year, Therese Ghiraldi
  • The first book in a series you haven’t read before
    • Cinder, Marissa Meyer
  • A book you bought on a trip
    • The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts will Rule the Digital World, Scott Hartley
  • A book recommended by an author you love
    • Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling
  • A bestseller from 2016
    • The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
  • A book with a family-member term in the title
    • The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared, Alice Ozma
  • A book that takes place over a character’s lifespan
    • The Cider House Rules, John Irving
  • A book about an immigrant or a refugee
    • The Sun is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon
  • A book from a genre/subgenre you’ve never heard of
    • The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson
  • A book with an eccentric character
    • Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, Chris Grabenstein
  • A book that’s more than 800 pages
    • It, Stephen King
  • A book that you got from a used book sale
    • Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott
  • A book that’s been mentioned in another book
    • The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton
  • A book on a difficult topic
    • All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven
  • A book based on mythology
    • The Raven Cycle, Maggie Stiefvater

 

WHEW!  And there you have it!  The full, completed POPSUGAR Challenge for 2017.

Anyone else out there doing the challenge?  Share the books you read to fill the list!  (And even if you didn’t take the challenge, see what books you’ve read and where they’d fit in above!)

And, is anyone up for taking the 2018 Challenge with me?  Let me know!

 

Cheers!

 

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Review: Mindy McGinnis’ “Not a Drop to Drink” and “In a Handful of Dust”

I always love when I come across a book or series with a female protagonist who is a total badass, and I’ve quickly learned that I need look no further than Mindy McGinnis and her YA books.  She creates these epic protagonists who you wish existed in real life (but only if they were on your side…).  For those of you who follow me on Instagram (@waitingforthesecondstar), you know how obsessed I was with McGinnis’ books during the month of October.  Her terrifying plot lines and tough-as-nails teenage girls were the perfect combination for Halloween reading.

During this time, I read Not a Drop to Drink and In a Handful of Dust, two companion novels that tell the story of Lynn and Lucy, a couple of girls fighting to survive in a world where fresh water is hard to come by, and even harder to protect.  The books were some of my favorite for the year, and so I wanted to put out a more formal review than what I usually post on Goodreads.

Mindy is a local author for me.  I have met Mindy three times, and she is spectacular.  I absolutely love going to see her at signings.  I adore her work because she’s unafraid to challenge gender stereotypes in her texts.  She’s also unashamed to go “there,” wherever “there” might be in a particular book (if you’ve read anything by her, you understand how dark and twisted her books can be!).  But in person, she’s super down-to-earth and fantastic, and I know I’m going to be a lifetime fan.

I’m going to split this review between the two titles, reviewing them separately.  I gave each of these books 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.  They are an excellent companion set focused on girlhood and growing up in a world that’s just gone wrong.  And while they’re shelved in the teen books, they’re definitely worthy of a crossover.  Not for the faint of heart, these twisted tales will make your skin crawl and your heart break.

So, shall we?

 

not a drop to drink

Regret was for the people who had nothing to defend, people who had no water.

Lynn knows every threat to her pond: drought, a snowless winter, coyotes, and, most important, people looking for a drink.  She makes sure anyone who comes near the pond leaves thirsty, or doesn’t leave at all.

Confident in her own abilities, Lynn has no use for the world beyond the nearby fields and forest.  But wisps of smoke on the horizon mean one thing: strangers.  The mysterious footprints by the pond, nighttime threats, and gunshots make it all too clear Lynn has exactly what they want, and they won’t stop until they get it…

With evocative, spare language and incredible drama, danger, and romance, Mindy McGinnis depicts one girl’s journey in a barren world not so different from our own.

Not a Drop to Drink follows closely the story of Lynn, a teenage girl who lives with her mom in the middle of nowhere, next to a precious pond of fresh water in a world where faucets don’t work and cholera is a constant threat.  Lynn’s mom has raised her on the idea of “shoot first, ask questions later,” and the closest she’s ever been to other humans has been through the scope on her rifle.  A terrible accident leaves her alone, and she has to reach out to her only neighbor, a man she hasn’t spoken to since her mom helped him get his foot out of a bear trap nearly a decade before.  And a set of city-slicker strangers will challenge the cold-hard shell of Lynn’s heart, forcing her to open up and take a chance at love in a world without hope.  Suddenly, with a very real threat just miles away, Lynn has far more to protect than just a pond.

This is a book that I would describe as “reads slow but has a lot going on.”  Sometimes, you pick up a book and the pages seem to turn really slowly, but you get to the end and you realize everything that happened and suddenly the book feels far more complex than you originally thought. (It’s kind of like feeling like a single day of the week drags by, but then Friday shows up before you expect it and you realize the week as a whole went by really fast.)  That’s how this book was, with everything that happened coming about in a matter-of-fact way.  The plot was chilling, action-focused, and it utilized characters as pawns in its game (so don’t get attached to anyone!).  And one of my favorite parts of McGinnis’ writing is that she takes these shocking moments and states them in such a straightforward way.  It adds to the darkness, the bleakness, and the horror.

Some of the events in this plot are somewhat predictable, but not in a bad way.  For instance, I had a pretty good idea who may show up in the final pages, and I was right.  But, that didn’t take away from the scene wherein Lynn meets this person, and what goes down is totally bone-chilling.  And, on the other hand, some moments were straight-up shocking!  Like, where did that come from?! So those moments helped to balance out the more obvious ones.

(Seriously.  Do NOT get emotionally attached to these characters!)

Honestly, I appreciated the fact that McGinnis was able to *remove* some of her characters from the plot, and she did so in such a way that it wasn’t overly emotional.  This wasn’t a John Green-esque bedside lament, but a “necessary evil” in the face of a dystopian future.  Most people find dystopian novels where no one dies to be unrealistic, and I have to agree, so I am so happy (is that demented of me?) that someone died in this one.  At the same time, I was equally happy that there is a companion book, because our two main characters–Lynn, and Lucy–had become so important to me.

(Okay, so you can get mildly emotionally attached to Lynn and Lucy, if you want to.  Just…you’ve been warned).

I also love that these books take place in Ohio, because it’s great to be able to imagine fields like the ones around where I grew up, and a city like the one I live in now.  Lots of books I read are set in other areas I’ve at least been to, but it’s definitely a neat experience to read something set where am.

There are several key characters in Not a Drop to Drink that I think really carry McGinnis’ novel to its conclusion.  Of course, there’s Lynn, a cold-hearted girl forced to grow up and do things no young person should have to.  I know some people have issues with her coldbloodedness, but characters like this are staples in McGinnis’ work.  You’re likely to find at least one terrifying woman whose sense of justice leaves everyone on edge.  I say embrace her, because we have far too many male characters in popular culture who would do the same thing, and we accept them with no questions asked.  This is the kind of subversive writing that I love, and Lynn is an excellent protagonist for a world where the girls get to be the badasses.

Stebbs is Lynn’s neighbor, and older man with a bum leg from his run-in with the bear trap.  He serves as the compassionate foil to Lynn and her mom, building the gap between the girl and the newcomers, Eli, Lucy, and Neva (these are the city slickers with no sense of living in the wilderness).  As a male character in a female-dominated text, I think Stebbs is excellent.  And he serves as an adorable grandfather figure throughout the series.

Eli is a sixteen-year-old boy who fled a nearby city with his brother and sister-in-law and their daughter.  Eli’s brother was killed before the trip really got started, and so Eli is trying to take care of his family.  He’s not as capable as his brother would have been, though.  I love Eli’s character, because he is so dependent on Lynn (again, some awesome challenges to gender roles here).

Lucy, Eli’s niece, is the instigator for melting Lynn’s cold heart.  She’s a seven-year-old girl with an earnest desire for life, and she is wonderful.  In this book, she’s largely treated as a child who’s still learning about the world.  It’s in the sequel that we get to see into her view (so more on her later!).

Neva is Lucy’s mother, forced to leave the city because she was pregnant with her second child (a dark world calls for dark laws).  After tragedy strikes her pregnancy, she’s never quite the same, but she manages to be a great mother one more time.  Neva is a definite foil to Lynn’s own mother, and while she is perhaps the most frustrating character to read, she’s again an awesome addition to the struggles that this small band of humans face in the wake of several tragedies.

Several awesome themes come out through this book, that I can’t stress enough for being so awesome.  The first, as you can probably guess by what I’ve said so far, is the heavy emphasis on motherhood and sisterhood.  I was often reminded of the work of Fannie Flagg while reading this, because so much time and energy goes into establishing powerful connections between women.  And men, because of their nature (usually faceless brutes coming to steal water from Lynn and robbing people on the road blind), are often seen as the “other,” for a fresh take on who our heroes should be.  The men we like in this story are kind and compassionate, containing many characteristics that may be somewhat effeminate, and they never upstage the women.  The bonds between women are powerful, and this book chooses to highlight that.

There’s also a heavy emphasis on the idea that family doesn’t end with blood.  Lynn ends up essentially adopting Lucy, and Stebbs becomes a great protector for the little family.  These relationships are key in a world without anyone else, but it also displays the important message that families look all sorts of different ways in the real world, too.  Again, an awesome element of diversity and inclusion.

You also get a really great glimpse at a dark, dark world.  Anymore, readers of YA frequently take comfort in worlds that seem more hopeless than our own.  This book certainly provides that kind of a perspective.  And yet, it’s handled with such taste.  Innocence is still preserved in the integrity and honesty of the characters.  This would be an easy thing for McGinnis to leave out, and yet it’s there, and it’s beautiful.

And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, this book tells a story of a girl who learns how to save herself.  Lynn is the leader in this outfit, and she directs Eli, Stebbs, and others along the way.  When fate threatens to intervene and turn her world upside down, she’s the one that tells it, No.  Whether this was intentional or not, I think it’s greatly important, because this is another book out there for young women to read and remind themselves that they are powerful.

Not a Drop to Drink is an excellent girlhood, dystopian story with a unique premise and challenging conclusion that leaves you begging for more.

Fortunately…there is more!

in a handful of dust

The only thing bigger than the world is fear.

Lucy’s life by the pond has always been full.  She has water and friends, laughter and the love of her adoptive mother, Lynn.  Yet it seems Lucy’s future is settled already–a house, a man, children, and a water source–and anything beyond their life by the pond is beyond reach.

When disease burns through their community, the once life-saving water of the pond might be the source of what’s killing them now.  Rumors of a “normal” lifestyle in California set Lucy and Lynn on an epic journal west to face new dangers: hunger, mountains, deserts, betrayal, and the perils of a world so vast that Lucy fears she could be lost forever, only to disappear in a handful of dust.

In this companion to Not a Drop to Drink, Mindy McGinnis thrillingly combines the heart-swelling hope of a journey, the challenges of establishing your own place in the world, and the gripping physical danger of nature in a futuristic frontier.

This book is told with a closer eye on Lucy, and it begins in a community that’s been established around Lynn’s pond and Lucy’s dowsing abilities.  When polio strikes that community, and Lucy may be the carrier of the disease, Lynn and Lucy have to leave the town altogether.  So, they set out for California (from Ohio!) and take on all the perils between here and there (ha! Because I’m in Ohio).  Lucy is confident with Lynn at her side, but as their journey wears on, she has to learn how to find strength from inside herself.

The plot of this one seems to move more quickly, perhaps because the girls are actually travelling.  This plot was also far less predictable, as so many of the things and people they encountered as they went along were shocking, terrifying, revolting…aye!  There was also more focus on character, since it was just Lucy and Lynn for a lot of the book, and this read very much like a coming-of-age story for Lucy.  She’s now the age Lynn was when they met each other, and she admires Lynn’s strength, but she knows she doesn’t want to live like Lynn.  For these reasons, this was my favorite of the two books.

And for that reason, the ending of this one nearly ripped my heart out.

(Do. Not. Get. Emotionally. Attached…I think you get the point.)

This one also had me sobbing at different moments from the writing alone.  McGinnis powers up the prose, for sure.  I felt so much of this, physically and emotionally.  I was raw and reeling for over 24 hours after finishing it.  This writing really built into the settings, and you feel like you’re crossing the mountains or the desert with the girls.

Character names are somewhat less important to this plot (or, rather, more important, because naming anyone would give a good bit of the plot away), but I can summarize some of the themes I noticed in character placement and why I enjoyed them.

This book is still very female-driven.  Many of the men are Bad Guys or accessories, and the two girls are the main carriers of the plot.  I like this because it remains consistent with the first book.  However, McGinnis also provides some more devious women in this book, some girls and grown-ups as bad as the men.  (And, there is one spectacularly wonderful man who helps to counteract some of the darkness from the other men!)  This complicates the plot, I think, and adds an edge to what McGinnis has created.  Girls are now reading and thinking about what type of girl they want to be, just like Lucy is thinking herself.

Several themes repeat themselves in this text.  For instance, sisterhood and motherhood are brought right back to the forefront.  Lucy treats Lynn like a mother, and they set themselves apart from almost everyone they encounter.  There’s an inherent distrust of anyone else that stems from the world they live in, but this blatant fear creates a fierce bond to exemplify the pure strength and resilience of women when they work together.

Survival is a more significant element in this book, because life-sustaining substances are harder to come by.  There’s also a fascinating interplay wherein Lynn has become the kind of person she would have shot, no questions asked.  Also, Lucy is wrestling with more than physical ailments, as McGinnis takes a good stab at anxiety and “adulting” fears.  There’s also an underlying theme of what makes an appropriate way to survive, because in this text many people are encountered who do things the wrong way.  And hope is personified in the other side of individuals who show up with good things.

And finally, as I mentioned above, this book is about becoming yourself.  As I said, some readers take pretty serious issue with Lynn.  She’s cold, man; ice cold.  So this story is of a more human character, Lucy, who admires Lynn’s strength and yet wonders what her strength will look like on its own.

In a Handful of Dust is a spectacular sister/mother/daughter story of survival and self-discovery, with just the right amount of darkness and hope to keep the pages turning.

 

Put these two together, and you have a super kickass masterpiece.  These books won’t be right for everyone, and yet I can’t praise them enough.  We need more books like this, where women take on a role that men would normally fill, and then make it their own.  And we need more books that offer hope in unusual forms, heroes in unusual capes, and families in unusual sizes.  I’m so grateful to Mindy for writing books like this, and I look forward to reading more of them.

 

Cheers, and happy reading!

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