The Last Book of 2018 and the First of 2019

I’ve been a little bit behind on my book reviews, seeing as how this is my first of the year even though February’s almost over.  But I have been doing some good reading, so here are two great books I want to share with you.

The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The international literary sensation, about a boy’s quest through the secrets and shadows of postwar Barcelona for a mysterious author whose book has proved as dangerous to own as it is impossible to forget. –Goodreads

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This was the last book I read in 2018 and it was a great way to cap off the year.  This is a book for anyone who loves books. The Shadow of the Wind is the first in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series; it concluded last year with The Labyrinth of the Spirits.

Part of the draw for me was the setting.  It takes place in post-civil war Barcelona, Spain under the Franco dictatorship.  These were very dark and brutal times, and in my experience many people in Spain don’t really want to talk about this era.  But it is a great setting for this mystery/thriller, which also has a bit of romance that keeps it hopeful. The story shows how thin the line can be between fiction and reality.

After reading it, I even got the Spanish edition of the book so I can now read it in the original.  I really want to hear the authentic voice of the slightly-manic Fermin, even though I think I will have to look up a lot of his vocabulary.

Operating Instructions

by Anne Lamott

The most honest, wildly enjoyable book written about motherhood is surely Anne Lamott’s account of her son Sam’s first year. –Goodreads

12540I began reading this soon after my son turned one; I thought it this memoir would be a good way to reflect on my son’s first year, and I hadn’t been ready to revisit that time in my life until recently.  It is really a perfect encapsulation of the first year of motherhood, and the writing is just great. It made me alternately cry and laugh out loud, and I mean both literally. I highlighted several passages in my Kindle, which I rarely do.  Lamott had some struggles that I didn’t, and likewise I had some that she didn’t, but her story still really rang true for me.

Lamott’s voice in this really reminded me of Carrie Fisher’s in her memoirs like Shockaholic and Wishful Drinking.  Both recovering addicts, they reflect openly on their mental health and veer into dark humor. And while Lamott is liberal like Fisher (she harangues the comparatively mild George Bush in a way that now seems ironic), she also is staunchly Christian as well.  This is a potent combination for me since I am also both liberal and Christian, but it may be a turn-off for those who are not.

I did wonder a bit how Sam would feel about this book, so it was very interesting to also read Lamott’s companion book Some Assembly Required about the birth of Sam’s son.  Sam says about Operating Instructions, “To this day, that book is the greatest gift anyone has given me; I have a very special relationship with it.”

Another cool note is that this book introduces a story about her father encouraging her brother to do a biology report by taking it “bird by bird.”  This quote shapes her later book on writing of the same name, which I also really recommend.

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2018 Reading Review

In some ways, 2018 was a great year for reading.  But it had its downsides, too.  I was once again able to read approximately 100 books this year (not counting re-reads).  But being a parent has really changed how and what I’m reading, which is disappointing to me.  Here are some notes from my reading this year and my goals for next year.

The Great American Read

PBS’s Great American Read was the highlight of my reading year.  I had great fun reading four of the books on the Top 100 list, bringing my total read to 36, and voting for my favorites in the contest.  To Kill a Mockingbird was the big winner, but many of my favorites rounded out the top five.  You can read more about it here.

Author Discovery: VE Schwab

When I was getting back to reading earlier this year, I picked up the A Darker Shade of Magic trilogy by VE Schwab and fell in love.  You can read my longer review here.  I then went on to read Vicious, which I may love even more!  I’m still working my way through the rest of her repertoire, so expect to see more about her other novels next year.

Audiobooks

I tried listening to some audiobooks for the first time this year and had a mixed reaction.  I listened to two romance novels and VE Schwab’s Venegeful (sequel to Vicious).  I did enjoy listening to them on my commute, but I actually like listening to music just as well.  Mostly, I felt very impatient with them.  I was listening to them on 1.5 speed, and it still took hours longer to listen to them than it would have to read them.  I also didn’t really like the voice performance aspect, because when I read of course I never do different voices for characters in my head, so that was a bit weird to me to hear that.  What do you guys think?  Should I keep trying?  Do you have suggestions for books that are really good as audiobooks?

Blogging Book Reviews

One of my goals at the end of last year was to review more of what I am reading here, and I’m happy that I did review a lot of my genre reads here on the blog.

Now for the downsides…

Although I read about 100 books, about 80 of these were Regency romances, and I would say only about half of those were worthwhile reading.  So I hit the mark for quantity but not quality.  Hence I want to change a few things in my reading next year.

  1. Read from more genres.  Although I did read a good mix of sci-fi and fantasy, as well as evenly from adult and YA, I barely read any manga or comics and no nonfiction at all this year.   I also want to read more short stories and historical fiction.
  2. Finish Heyer’s romances.  I’m not giving up Regency romance entirely! I mentioned last year that I began reading through the works of Georgette Heyer, and I was able to read several more this year.  I have yet to be really disappointed by a single one of her stories.  I want to finish reading her oeuvre of historical romances (I only have about five left) and maybe try some of her mysteries.
  3. Read books I already own.  I have shelves and shelves of books and people keep giving me more.  Yet I’m constantly requesting books at the library, and then I have to finish them first because there’s a deadline!  Which leads me to…
  4. Finish the books I started.  I started 11 books this year that I was unable to finish before they had to go back to the library.  Eleven!!  I would check out too many books on my Kindle, then not get to one until it was almost due, then be unable to finish it.  I couldn’t renew because they all have long wait lists.  It was a vicious cycle I want to break next year.  Because my reading time is more limited now, I need to be a little more focused in my reading and maybe not check out every single ebook that looks vaguely interesting.  I’ve also discovered that I can “suspend” holds, so instead of a library book just showing up on my Kindle when it comes available, it won’t come until I’m ready for it.

What books did you enjoy most in 2018?  Do you have reading goals for 2019?

Brief Book Reviews, Fall 2018

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the novels I’ve been reading recently.

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The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas

I read this one for Banned Book Week back at the end of September.  I just wanted to give it another mention because it deserves it.  Aside from the relevant topics of police shootings and race relations, I really loved the depiction of Starr’s family.  Starr’s parents are not perfect people, but they are good parents.  Her family life can be messy, but it is loving, and I think that’s a great thing to show in a YA novel.  Also, I really want to know Starr’s reaction to her favorite player LeBron moving to her hometown Los Angeles!

Vicious

VE Schwab

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Don’t you just love a book that gets you to root for the sociopath?  After loving Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series, I picked up another of her books and was blown away.  If ADSoM had a weakness, it was the villains, and this series avoids that neatly by having all the characters be villains! 

Well, that might be overstating it a bit, but I love a good “grey” character, and this book is full of them.  It centers on Victor and Eli, who were college roommates studying EOs: people with ExtraOrdinary abilities caused by near death experiences.  Ten years later, Victor is out of prison and going after Eli.  I loved the way the story unfolded in both time periods, picking up a strong supporting cast.

It was also a great read for the Halloween season, having some of the same themes as Frankenstein.  Plus it starts and ends with the characters digging up bodies in a graveyard.  Can’t ask for better atmosphere than that!

I read this in anticipation of the sequel Vengeful, which is out now, so check back soon for my thoughts on that one.

Into the Bright Unknown

Rae Carson

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A solid conclusion to the Gold Seer trilogy, a YA historical fantasy series.  After an Oregon Trail scenario in the first book, and a more standard conflict with the main villain in the second book, this one switches it up with a heist story.

While I appreciate the effort to show the contributions of women and minorities to American history, I did find it a bit funny that these books were apparently trying for the title of most woke series ever.  Some examples:

  • Only the villains own slaves.  Even the closest thing we have to grey characters, some prospectors, make sure to mention that they are from Ohio and therefore abolitionist.

  • A villain deliberately misgenders our protagonist Lee as an insult.

  • The male lead asks for affirmative consent before kissing Lee.

  • A random white male bank clerk in California is sexist, then a few pages later also racist.

  • Lee is rebuked several times for playing white savior

This kind of black-and-white morality is a not quite subtle enough for me, but I think it serves YA fiction well.  Overall, I’d recommend the series to anyone who likes YA light fantasy and the Wild West.

The Rose Legacy

Jessica Day George

36314263This book is for all those little girls (or former little girls) who are horse crazy!  It’s a charming light fantasy, middle grades story of an intrepid girl and her horse companion who get involved in secret plots affecting the whole kingdom.  I didn’t find it quite as strong as the author’s other books, but still enjoyable.

The opening of the book reminded me of a favorite, The Blue Sword.  As an orphan, Anthea has been bounced around between family and now goes to join relatives past the wall in the north of the kingdom, where there are rumors of secret magic things (like horses).  The story has some interesting twists, and the characters are pretty good, especially one that reminded me of Mrs. Coulter from The Golden Compass.  The ending could have been tighter, but there will be a sequel coming next year.

The Potion Diaries

Amy Alward

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You may have seen this one under a previous title, Madly.  This cute fantasy adventure would be a great beach read, a fun mix of princes, puzzles, and pharmaceuticals.  I liked the magic and the characters were fun, but ultimately it was on the forgettable side.

 

 

 

 

The Frankenstein Chronicles

If you guys are looking for something spooky to watch this Halloween, check out The Frankenstein Chronicles on Netflix.

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Sean Bean stars as John Marlott, a London investigator tracking down the origin of a disturbing creation: a corpse that is actually an amalgamation of multiple children.  Does it have something to do with the Anatomy Act that the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, is trying to pass?  Or with Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and theories of galvanism?  The show has wonderful atmosphere and suspense.  I really liked the twists in the first season, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in the second season, which is now available.

The science of the show is pretty hand-wavey, but that’s forgivable given the show’s strengths.  It does incorporate several real historical figures and events, including Peel, Shelley, and William Blake.  It is set about ten years after the publication of Frankenstein, which was a great choice because not only can we see the impact of the novel on society, but it also gives the show a more steampunk vibes, being closer to the Victorian era than the Regency.

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The show is clearly inspired by Frankenstein itself, and I think this interpretation is preferable to another straight adaptation of the novel.  It gives a great perspective on the monster!  When Marlott reads the novel in the show, it inspired me to finally read the classic story, which is very different than the popular conception of it.

Here are some Frankenstein Facts:

  1. This year is the 200th anniversary of its publication.
  2. Mary Shelley was only 18 when she conceived of the idea for the novel, after a suggestion by the poet Byron that he, Mary, and her future husband poet Percy Bysshe Shelley each write a ghost story as a kind of party game.
  3. It is an epistolary novel, written as a series of letters and journal entries.
  4. Its subtitle is “The Modern Prometheus,” after the Titan that helped create man, then gave them fire in defiance of Zeus (only to be sentenced to an eternity of solitary torment).
  5. It was ranked #43 on the Great American Read list.
  6. Popular conception of the story comes from the Universal Pictures 1930s series of movies starring Boris Karloff as the monster, as well as the later Hammer Films series of movies starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
  7. It is considered one of the progenitors of the science fiction genre.

As a novel, I found Frankenstein mildly underwhelming.  I’m not sold on the framing narrative involving an Arctic explorer writing letters home to his sister, and the prose lacks the wit of my Regency favorite Jane Austen.  However, as a forerunner to modern sci-fi, its importance cannot be overstated.  At its heart, science fiction is not about spaceships and plagues, but about society.  Frankenstein deals with scientific inquiry, or more specifically how far it should go.  Just because we are capable of doing something, should it be done?  Is it ever okay to “play God?”

In this way, the story is similar to another sci-fi favorite, Jurassic Park (#52 on the GAR list).  Holly at Nut Free Nerd has a great comparison of the two stories as part of her Classic Couples series.

 

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What are you reading and watching for Halloween?

 

Great American Read Wrap-Up

Have you all been participating in the Great American Read?  I first wrote about it back in May, and since then I’ve been reading some books from the Top 100 list, voting for my favorites every day, and watching the weekly specials on PBS that highlight some of these favorite novels of the American public.

It was all leading up to Tuesday night, when the winner of the voting was announced.  You can see the full list of results here. According to the GAR votes, here are the five best-loved novels in America:

5. The Lord of the Rings (series)

4. Pride and Prejudice

3. Harry Potter (series)

2. Outlander

1.To Kill a Mockingbird  

To Kill a Mockingbird

My guess prior to the announcement was that it would be To Kill a Mockingbird, but even I was a bit surprised how overwhelming it was: it started out at number one and never wavered once over the months.  TKAM is a wonderful book with broad appeal, but I think it remains so popular because it is quintessentially American.  It’s a coming-of-age story of a young Southern girl; it deals with race relations; it shows the merits and flaws of our justice system; it provides an enduring role model and hero in Atticus Finch.  And it doesn’t hurt that it’s taught so frequently in schools that probably most Americans have read it (certainly the ones voting on PBS programs).

I really enjoyed the GAR and hope PBS will do similar events in the future, perhaps for American authors or nonfiction, plays, or poetry.  I now have a whole lot more books on my to-read list as well! I had already read 32 of the 100 on the list, and I read three more during the course of the GAR.  Here are some brief thoughts on these three novels.

Rebecca coverRebecca by Daphne du Maurier

This novel had been on my to-read list for a while, so I picked it up to read over vacation…yeah, it’s not really a light beach read.  It’s a gothic suspense story featuring the new, young wife of a widower with many secrets, especially regarding his late wife, Rebecca. I loved the atmosphere and very much enjoyed the twists and the ending.  I’m looking forward to reading it again, because I think this is one that improves upon closer acquaintance. I also watched the TV adaptation of Jamaica Inn by the same author and loved it; you can find it on Netflix.

The Alchemist by Paulo CoelhoThe Alchemist cover

I’ve heard wonderful things about this inspiration novel, which tells the story of a Spanish shepard who journeys across Africa to find his Personal Legend.  I enjoyed reading it and it made me think, but in the end it didn’t strike me deeply. The plot and characters were too vague and archetypal for my taste; if I’m going to read allegory, I’d prefer it to have some more personality, like the Chronicles of Narnia. I also felt like it didn’t have much to say to women; I can only remember one named female character, and we aren’t very interested in her self-actualization.

Bless Me, Ultima coverBless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

I don’t know how I missed this book all these years!  I had even mentioned it in a 2014 blog post for Banned Books Week, because it made the Top 10 Challenged list for the previous year.  Yet not only had I not read it, I knew nothing about it. It’s a wonderful coming of age story from a Chicano perspective in the southwestern US, where Antonio feels pulled between different family expectations as well as traditional and modern cultures as he tries to find his place in the world. I related to it very personally because I also come from a Catholic family, and I really enjoyed the meld of Christianity and the traditional practices of the curandera, or healer.

Have you guys read any of these?  Which of the 100 books did you vote for?  I voted mostly for Pride and Prejudice, but I voted for many others along the way, including those in the top 5.  I was really pleased with the choices for the top 5–how about you?

If you still want to get involved in the Great American Read, you can: