Sunday, January 13, 2019

Reading Challenge 2019

Do you ever find yourself, especially at the beginning of a new year, gazing at your to-read list (because all cool people have one of those) and wondering, "What in the world should I read? Where do I even begin?" I often have this terrifying problem, and I frequently get stuck in a rut of reading the same kinds of books or authors over and over again. 

So, in order to help you and I figure out what books on our lists to read and to help unearth some treasures that we might not typically come across, I've developed a 2019 Reading Challenge. Over the course of this next year,* read a book in all of the following categories. If you're feeling especially ambitious, try to devour as many as you can in each category. Books that you've read before count, but only if you actually re-read them. 

Categories for 2019: 
Read (or listen to) a novel: 
1. With a (mostly) blue cover. 
2. That takes place in a country not your own. 
3. That begins with the letter, 'L' 
4. That was a gift from someone 
5. With a title relating to eating (it can be one word of the title)
6. With a child (not a teenager) as the main character 
7. That has giants
8. By an author who shares your first name
9. By an author who has the same letter in his/her first and last name (Ex. Salazar Slytherin) 
10. That is at least 200 pages long (this is your freebie!)
11. That contains maps 
12. That is 100 years old or older
13. That you've always wanted to read but haven't yet 
14. About books
15. Written by a local author
16. Possessing leaves on the cover 
17. That is a true story
18. That takes place in space 
19. That has a fox on the cover (because foxes are just so cute) 
20. About someone traveling to a new place 

In a year, I'll post what I've read in each of these categories, and I want to see what you've read too, so keep track. Happy reading! 

*I might at some point make this a timed challenge (with less categories), but I don't need that extra pressure right now. Let me know what you think in the comments below. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Best Books of 2018

Happy New Year! It's once again that time to list my favorite books I read this past year. I enjoy going back through my list and remembering all the worlds I had the privilege of entering, but it's always hard to choose the best. Surprisingly, since I thought I had less time this year than the previous one, I read a total of 44 novels. Woohoo! 

Best Classic
Of the four I read, the one that lingered the longest is Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. I'm inching my way through her books, and though this novel wasn't my favorite of hers, it reminded me why she's so renowned today and why I should continue traveling to 19th century England. Who knows? Perhaps another of her novels will pop up here next year. 

Best Adult Fiction 
Brandon Sanderson's Elantris barely beats Neal Gaiman's Stardust for this spot. They're both fascinating, fantastically-written fantasy series, but the mystery of the god-like Elantrians who are now destined to rot forever in a desolate city seized me and wouldn't let go. I've loved every Sanderson novel I've read, so if you enjoy fantasy, please check him out! You won't regret it. 
*This novel could also be considered young adult due to a lack of more mature concepts. 

Best Young Adult Fiction 
Though I'm no longer a young adult, I still adore these books and devour them like a two-year old with a stocking full of candy on Christmas. I read many delightful ones this year, too many to choose between them. So, forgive me, but I'm going to choose two. Like Sanderson, I've relished everything that Maggie Stiefavater has written and that I've had the opportunity to read. This year it was her magical-realistic novel, All the Crooked Saints. This tale explores the darkness found within every human and how we can conquer those shadows, together. 

The other book I was torn between is Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein. Although I also loved her award-winning, Code Name Verity , I empathized more with the characters in the former book, loved its exotic Ethiopian setting, and the happier notes written throughout. But I'm still very much looking forward to perusing Rose Under Fire, the partner to Code Name Verity, this year. 

Best Children's Fiction 
This was an easy choice, as I only read one book in this genre. A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck is sassy, hilarious, and just plain fun. I shared this quick, easy book with several family members, and they all loved and laughed through it. 

Best Non-Fiction 
If you want to travel without the cost and annoyance of airports, then A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle is your ticket. This novel follows a year of Peter and his wife's new life in Provence, France, in a witty, charming way. What makes it even better is that it's all true! 

Best Re-Read 
I reread Marissa Meyer's Cinder and Scarlet to prepare for the next books in the series: Cress and Winter (more terrific young adult books that I had to choose between!). It was nerve-tingling and laugh-inducing to hang out with these unique, raw characters again. I definitely feel like I'm good friends with both the protagonists in Cinder and Scarlet, and it was a joy to observe the threads of their story twine together into a beautiful, unifying piece of art. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Death and Mystery: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd 
By Agatha Christie 
Adult Mystery 

Roger Ackroyd knew too much. He knew that the woman he loved had poisoned her brutal first husband. He suspected also that someone had been blackmailing her. Then, tragically, came the news that she had taken her own life with a drug overdose. 

But the evening post brought Roger one last fatal scrap of information. Unfortunately, before he could finish reading the letter, he was stabbed to death. 

Besides the rather drab title, the Queen of Mystery does it again: wows the reader with a brilliant plot and unexpected culprit. I've only read a handful of mysteries, all Christie's (she is the master, after all), but each time I'm stupefied of who the murderer turns out to be, how they accomplished it, and how the detective (Poirot, in this novel), unwinds the knot of the mystery. 

In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I enjoyed watching the banter between the main character, Dr. Sheppard, and his sister, Caroline, as the latter attempts to solve the mystery using her various gossip channels. The main character himself was rather blah, and it would have been nice to peek more into Poirot's mind about what he's thinking and why. 

This was a quick, easy read, and pairs perfectly with a cup of hot tea and a rainy evening. I scatter three stars onto good, ole Roger, and recommend this novel for 15 year olds and up. 

*What are some mysteries that you love cozying up with on a wet, wild night?

Monday, October 15, 2018

Winter by Marissa Meyer

By Marissa Meyer 
YA Fantasy
*Last in the Lunar Chronicles Series 

"Princess Winter is admired by the Lunar people for her grace and kindness, and despite the scars that mar her face, her beauty is said to be even more breathtaking than that of her stepmother, Queen Levana.

"Winter despises her stepmother and knows Levana won't approve of her feelings for her childhood friend, the handsome palace guard Jacin. But Winter isn't as weak as Levana believes her to be, and she's been undermining her stepmother's wishes for years. Together with the cyborg mechanic, Cinder, and her allies, Winter might even have the power to launch a revolution and win a war that's been raging for far too long." 

Welcome to the final installment of the magnificent Lunar Chronicles! This novel is worth its place as the final book of the series. 

Winter, bless her heart, is a bit crazy, but the reason why softened my heart so that her madness didn't throw up a wall between us. Although she's broken (who isn't?), she possesses a courage and strength that the other characters don't. I do wish I could've spent more time with her; the reader is thrown around into so many heads because there a mountain-load of events happening all the time.

However, I did enjoy watching the other characters grow more in this novel, especially Cress, who I believe matured the most. Cinder didn't seem to change much over the course of the series, which was a bit disappointing since she's the main character. 

Meyer continued to enthrall me in this novel with her world-building prowess of the eerily majestic Luna, the fast-paced events that hint at the Hunger Games, the variety of the characters, and the satisfying conclusion (don't worry, I won't spoil anything!). 

The main thing that niggled at me throughout the novel was that the fairy-tale surrounding Winter, that of Snow White, was more difficult to follow than in the other books. This could just be due to the fact that I'm not as familiar with this fairy-tale as I am with Cinderella and Red Riding Hood. But I still wish it could've been as straightforward and obvious as it was with the other characters. 

Still, Winter deserves a 4 out of 4 like the rest of her comrades, and I recommend it for 15 year olds and up. 

*What I learned: There are different kinds of crazy, and being so doesn't mean you're not smart, brave, or capable. 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Year in Provenance by Peter Mayle

A Year in Provence 
by Peter Mayle
Adult Non-Fiction

"Peter Mayle tells what it is like to realize a long-cherished dream and actually move into a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the remote country of the Luberon with his wife and two large dogs. He endures January's frosty mistral as it comes howling down the Rhone Valley, discovers the secrets of goat racing through the middle of town, and delights in the glorious regional cuisine." 

This book was an all-expenses-paid vacation to Provence, France, without the annoyance of standing through security, enduring a long, claustrophobic plane ride, and memorizing how to say the 'lady's room' from a tiny French guidebook. The best way to travel, in my opinion. And what a trip it was. 

We get to see the back-roads, forests, and restaurants of France that a normal tourist wouldn't know existed. But it's really the characters and the narrator who are the heartbeat of this novel. In his witty, warm way, Mayle introduces us to his lecture-loving, humorous plumber, the inexperienced hunters who dress like they're experienced, and the various aspects of truffle-hunting. 

Mayle has an entertaining way of sharing an anecdote about something that seems like an ordinary event, like a celebratory dinner, and shaping it with humor until it settles on your mind like a cozy blanket that you don't want to take off because it feels so good. 

The author gives us a rich and real picture of Provence without dipping into criticism or dull facts. He takes you, month by month, through the year in this perplexing, wonderful place until you feel like it's your home as well. 

The only aspect in this book that I had a hard time with was the usage of French words. I didn't have a problem with him sprinkling them in, since he is in France, after all, but several times he didn't mention the meaning of a particular word, leaving me in the dark about the point he was trying to tell. This did not occur often, however, so I still award this novel a 5 out of 5 stars. I recommend it for 16 year olds and up.

Also, bring an empty stomach to A Year in Provence, because many of his anecdotes revolve around food!

*Mayle has also written a novel titled, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence, which I will definitely find and proceed to devour. Another cheap (if not free) trip to France! 

Monday, September 3, 2018

Scarlet and Cress by Marissa Meyer

By Marissa Meyer 
YA Fantasy
#2 in the Lunar Chronicles Series

I'm not going to type out the synopsis on the back of Scarlet, as I typically do, so as not to spoil anything in case you haven't read the first book in the series, Cinder, yet. But if you have read that novel, then there's no doubt you're reading or have read Scarlet. One bleeds into the next like watercolor, all vivid and thrilling. I've found this to be true with each book in this delightful series. 

Scarlet is the story of Red-Riding Hood, but more than that, it's the story of Scarlet, a stubborn, strong-willed young lady and her love for her grandmother. When her grandmother goes missing, and a suspicious, yet handsome wolfish man appears who claims he can help Scarlet find her, Scarlet jumps into an adventure that will bring her in close contact with Cinder and her dangerous reputation. 

I love how Meyer introduces the reader to new characters while continuing to develop those in former novels. This requires true talent. 

The first time I read this book, my heart galloped in fear and pleasure at Wolf's and Scarlet's interactions. Their relationship spun out differently than I anticipated, and they both changed for the good at the end. I also enjoyed the French culture tossed into the book and into Scarlet's character; it was light enough to be charming. 

Although I thoroughly devoured this novel, I gobbled up the next one in the series much quicker. 

By Marissa Meyer 
YA Fantasy 
#3 in the Lunar Chronicles Series

This novel explores the fairy tale of Rapunzel. Cress has been imprisoned in a satellite by a wicked Lunar to spy on Earthens. Until one man shows up and hurtles her into Cinder's and Scarlet's plot to save their world. 

Every chapter of this book was a feast! So much happens on every single page, that I definitely extended my lunch hour to longer than an hour just to get to the end of a climax. But then another one would begin, and my eyes kept swinging across the pages. 

Also, I love Cress. I love her more than any other character (so far). This is probably due in part to her utter innocence and how pitiable her position is at the beginning of the story. But more than that, I love her because she is so like me: enthusiastic and passionate, imaginative, and yes, because she loves to sing out loud (and in the shower). 

This book devotes more time to the other characters (due to there being more characters around), and Cinder and her friends are (finally) sharpening their plans and plots to protect their planet(s). Things are happening, and Meyer yanks you through the story with all of her plot twists, but it's so exhilarating that you just feel as if you're soaring through the action. It would be worthwhile to read the other two novels just to read Cress. 

The problem of the various languages spoken throughout the novel did niggle at me, and Meyer's quick explanation didn't tie it up neatly enough for me. Also, my husband, being the engineer/logic-brained one, questioned the anti-gravity on the ship, but those were our only obstacles. 

Both Scarlet and Cress deserve four gold stars. I recommend them for 15 year-olds and up. 

What I learned: People are more than their appearances, and a beautiful face does not equate to a beautiful heart. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity 
By Elizabeth Wein 
YA Historical Fiction 

"On October 11th, 1943, a British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. But just one of the girls has a chance at survival. Arrested by the Gestapo, "Verity" is given a choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution. They'll get the truth out of her. Only, it won't be what they expect." 

This book is a masterpiece. It's also a tear-jerker, so have a box of Kleenexes ready if you're one of those readers who melt into tears when something somber occurs. 

But veritably, Wein did an amazing job sculpting the world and characters of England and France in the 1900s. I can't fathom how much research she did, but it is (as much as I am aware of, which isn't much), spot on. Everything, from the airplanes to the scarves 'Verity' wears seems current to the time period. Her characters also make references to books and other media in thise time period. This was fascinating and definitely helped push the reader thoroughly into the characters' world, but it also sometimes was over my head, since I obviously didn't live in this era, and it frustrated me at times. 

Overall, though, this novel and the other Wein book I've read has caused my expectations of historical fiction to rise to Mt. Everest heights. Sorry, future historical fiction books I will read and historical fiction books I long to write; you just won't measure up. 

'Verity's' and Maddie's best-friend love for each other are as real and apparent as my husband's love for me. I can't believe they're not real! The characters charmed me with their British and Scottish slang, the way they played make-believe to incite their courage, and the way they fought through all the trials that confronted them. 

It did take a while for me to get used the narration style. The narrator is unreliable for an exceptionally good reason, but it did throw up barriers between her and myself. I also didn't relate to her personality as much as most characters in previous novels I've read; she's just wild. I much preferred the narration and personality of the other main character, Maddie. Too bad she didn't have much talking time! However, she features in the book, Rose Under Fire, so I'm quite excited to enter that story once I can get my hands on it. 

For all the above reasons, I give this novel a 4 out of 5. It would have been a 5 if I had not felt so left out of 'Verity's' mind. Again, it was for a good reason, but I do not enjoy the experience, nor am I used to it. 

What I learned: Writing historical fiction requires too much research! But in all seriousness, life is fleeting and short; it can leave us as easily and quickly as blowing out a candle. So what am I doing with mine?