Popsugar Reading Challenge Update: 9-12

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Part three of my Popsugar Reading Challenge review series. Read the first two installments here and here. Or just, you know, keep scrolling down.

A dystopian novel: Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard 

  • Why I picked it: Yes, this is yet another YA dystopian trilogy. Yes, our brooding heroine, beaten down by Society, yearns for a better life as so many brooding heroines have done before her. Yes, there is a sweet younger sister, and yes, there is a hunky childhood friend—we get the trope at this point. However, despite the proliferation of young adult novels playing some (slight) variation on this theme, I liked Red Queen, the first book in this series, well enough to buy the second when I saw it at Target.
  • Blurb in brief: “Mare Barrow’s blood is red—the color of common folk—but her Silver ability, the power to control lightning, has turned her into a weapon that the royal court tries to control. The crown calls her an impossibility, a fake, but as she makes her escape from…the prince—the friend—who betrayed her, Mare uncovers something startling: she is not the only one of her kind.”
  • What I thought: I got about 5 pages into the book before I realized I didn’t remember enough of the first book to proceed without a re-read. Once I was reacquainted with the story line, I did like this novel even more than the first because it does feel more original. Red Queen was Red Rising with a dash of X-Men and The Selection (and by extension, The Hunger Games) mixed in; this book felt a little too reminiscent of Breaking Dawn with the hunt for newbloods and their subsequent training sessions in various deserted wooded locales, but in general, it was less formulaic. There were some scenes that Aveyard skipped over or didn’t fully develop which made me feel cheated (thinking in particular of the fallout…or lack thereof…after a major character death), but overall, I enjoyed it.
  • My rating: 4/5; Goodreads rating: 4.10/5

A book with a blue cover: The Siren by Kiera Cass

  • Why I picked it: I’ve held a longtime fascination with anything to do with Greek mythology. There were a lot of retellings of the Hades/Persephone myth in recent years, but I don’t actually know of a lot of stories that deal with sirens in popular culture (anyone else remember that episode of So Weird with Jewel Staite?), so between Cass’s name, the pretty cover, and the premise, I was intrigued.
  • Blurb in brief: “Years ago, Kahlen was rescued from drowning by the Ocean. To repay her debt, she has served as a Siren ever since, using her voice to lure countless strangers to their deaths. Though a single word from Kahlen can kill, she can’t resist spending her days on land, watching ordinary people and longing for the day when she will be able to speak and laugh and live freely among them again. Kahlen is resigned to finishing her sentence in solitude…until she meets Akinli.”
  • What I thought: Oh, YA authors and their insistence on “unique” character names. I can take Eadlyn and Kile in the futuristic/alternate reality setting of the Selection series. But seriously? No turn of the last century society lady is naming her child Kahlen. Don’t get me started on Akinli. I’ll be brief—I didn’t like this book. I choked down the murky money making mechanics that kept Kahlen and her sisters afloat financially and the odd conceit of referring to the Ocean as “Her” and “She” and the Instalove™ that developed between the two main characters after an afternoon because epic eye-rolling aside, it was at least an easy read, and I think a part of me hoped it would eventually get better. It didn’t.
  • My rating: 2/5; Goodreads rating: 3.86/5

A book about a road trip: One Plus One by Jojo Moyes (audiobook version)

  • Why I picked it: Because twenty-six hours of British accents wasn’t enough to satisfy my craving. And I needed a book about a road trip.
  • Blurb in brief: “Suppose your life sucks. A lot. Your husband has done a vanishing act, your teenage stepson is being bullied and your math whiz daughter has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you can’t afford to pay for. That’s Jess’s life in a nutshell—until an unexpected knight-in-shining-armor offers to rescue them. Only Jess’s knight turns out to be Geeky Ed, the obnoxious tech millionaire whose vacation home she happens to clean. But Ed has big problems of his own, and driving the dysfunctional family to the Math Olympiad feels like his first unselfish act in ages… maybe ever.”
  • What I thought: I didn’t like this as well as I liked Me Before You and After You—Louisa’s story stuck with me long after I’d finished both books in a way this didn’t. Things I did like: the relationship between math-prodigy Tanzie and her big half-brother, Nick. Tanzie’s devotion to her ancient and flatulent pooch, Norman. The whole Odyssey-esque framework of the story in which the journey truly is more important than the destination in all senses of the phrase. Save this one for your beach bag.
  • My rating: 4/5; Goodreads rating: 3.93/5

An audiobook that has won an award: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (audiobook version…obviously)

  • Why I picked it: This is a category my book club added and one I actually researched before choosing a title. I was delighted to discover this book as I’ve been eyeing Gaiman’s body of work for while. The book itself has won heaps of awards, including the Newbery and the Carneigie medals (the only book ever to win both!), and this unabridged, full-cast version won the 2015 Audie for Distinguished Achievement in Production, while the original recording won Audiobook of the Year in 2009. Basically, this is a children’s book with a long pedigree.
  • Blurb in brief: “After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own. Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family…”
  • What I thought: I LOVED it. Gaimen took some of his inspiration from Kipling’s The Jungle Book, so some of the characters are familiar in their re-imagined states: Bagheera, Baloo, and of course, Mowgli. Bod’s story unfolds through a series of short, almost-but-not quite stand-alone chapters which take place roughly two years apart from one another, so the reader gets to watch Bod grow-up over the course of the novel. I really liked the audio version (and spent a good deal of time googling to confirm that The Man Jack was, in fact, voiced by THAT Andrew Scott), even if young Bod’s voice was grating at times. This is a wonderful and magical coming-of-age story I know I’ll reread again and again. 100% will purchase and hoard on my bookshelf forever.
  • My rating: 5/5; Goodreads rating: 4.10/5

Which book should you buy in bulk at Half Price Books and gift to everyone you know? 

The Graveyard Book, in any of its award-winning iterations.

Have you read any of the titles in this bunch? Did anyone else covet the sisters’ sparkly sea salt dresses (and perfect, beachy waves) after reading The Siren or was that just me? Let me know in the comments section!

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Popsugar Reading Challenge Update: 5-8

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Here’s a 5-star quartet of novel reviews for your reading pleasure. You can catch up on my first set of Popsugar challenge reviews here.

A book published in 2016: The Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutkowski 

  • Why I picked it: I started the Winner’s Trilogy last year after a friend recommended the first book, The Winner’s Curse. I actually listened to the audiobooks before I went back and re-read the physical books, and I highly recommend them; the narrator, Justine Eyre, is fantastic, and her voicing of the characters does a lot to add to the world-building of Herran and Valoria. I wish I could put my finger on what blend of accents she does for the Valorians because it’s awesome—but I digress. I instaloved the series and was desperate to get my hands on the final installment after listening to the audio versions again (seriously, they are so good) in preparation for its release. The Herrani god of luck must love me because Barnes and Noble accidentally stocked The Winner’s Kiss four days early, which I promptly bought and devoured on a Saturday afternoon.
  • Blurb in brief: “War has begun. Arin is in the thick of it with untrustworthy new allies and the empire as his enemy. Though he has convinced himself that he no longer loves Kestrel, Arin hasn’t forgotten her, or how she became exactly the kind of person he has always despised. She cared more for the empire than she did for the lives of innocent people—and certainly more than she did for him. At least, that’s what he thinks.”
  • What I thought: Y’ALL. Trilogies are tough. It’s rare for me to find a trilogy which has a truly satisfying ending; rarer still to find one in which I feel each part is equally as strong as the others. Each book is different, genre-wise, in this series: Curse feels a lot like a historical romance (of the star-crossed variety), Crime is a mystery complicated by a tangle of infuriating misunderstandings (and not nearly enough face-smushing), Kiss is almost a war novel with some intense battle scenes and lots of strategizing. I loved seeing the trajectory of Arin and Kestral’s relationship  reach its (satisfying) conclusion. Roshar has my heart forever. I’m pretty sure I would be terrible at Bite and Sting if my attempts to play this are any indication. But most importantly, this book and this series is amazing, and I’m kind of mad you’re still reading this instead of listening to it on Audible right now.
  • My rating: 5/5; Goodreads rating: 4.51/5

A book with a protagonist who has your occupation: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

  • Why I picked it: This book came to me in my March 2016 “Writer’s Block” OwlCrate (which was my favorite box so far). I’d been reading lots of fantasy/dystopian YA and so liked the sound of a contemporary novel set in the South. I knew the book had been getting a lot of good press, and I started this one right away.
  • Blurb in brief: “Dill has had to wrestle with vipers his whole life—at home, as the only son of a Pentecostal minister who urges him to handle poisonous rattlesnakes, and at school, where he faces down bullies who target him for his father’s extreme faith and very public fall from grace. He and his fellow outcast friends [Lydia and Travis] must try to make it through their senior year of high school without letting the small-town culture destroy their creative spirits and sense of self.”
  • What I thought: About halfway through the story, I thought to myself, “You know, I like this book, but I don’t love it.” Then SPOILERS happened, and I ugly-cried throughout a lot of the last third. This book isn’t perfect—some of the characters felt a little too pat or a little too heavily drawn to me, mostly the secondary characters like Dill’s classmates and Travis’ dad. Maybe I’m naive, but I also thought Lydia’s internet fame might gain her at least a little cachet with her peers. What I liked most about the book was the relationships depicted between the characters: the love between the trio of friends was beautiful.
  • My rating: 5/5; Goodreads rating: 4.44/5

A book that takes place during the summer: After You by Jojo Moyes (audiobook version)

  • Why I picked it: We read Me Before You for book club last year (and I looooooooved it). I was so excited to see that Moyes decided to continue Louisa’s story after Will. I listened to Me Before You via Audible, so I decided to download the sequel too (I drive a lot). Unexpected consequence of listening to back-to-back British books read by British narrators was developing a slight British accent…I was okay with it.
  • Blurb in brief: “How do you move on after losing the person you loved? How do you build a life worth living? Louisa Clark is no longer just an ordinary girl living an ordinary life. After the transformative six months spent with Will Traynor, she is struggling without him. When an extraordinary accident forces Lou to return home to her family, she can’t help but feel she’s right back where she started.”
  • What I thought: I’m so glad that Moyes wrote this book. I think there is a tendency to want to wrap up sad stories with a neat bow, which simply isn’t realistic. Louisa wasn’t going to just go to Paris and live this amazing life after Me Before You ended. I haven’t experienced grief like Louisa’s, but I think that Moyes does a good job giving us, the reader, an honest look at the grieving process for all those who were touched by Will’s death. The book had a great mix of old, familiar characters and some fresh faces, and it’s possible I cried at least twice.
  • My rating: 5/5; Goodreads rating: 3.73/5

A murder mystery: Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith 

  • Why I picked it: I’ve been a fan of Galbraith’s Comoran Strike books since The Cuckoo’s Calling was released back in 2013. I’ve always liked mysteries and the Strike books have a grittiness to them I enjoy. It was also one of the first books I bought on my Kindle, even though I swore for years I’d never go over to the e-reader dark side. Meep.
  • Blurb in brief: “When a mysterious package is delivered to Robin Ellacott, she is horrified to discover that it contains a woman’s severed leg. Her boss, private detective Cormoran Strike, is less surprised but no less alarmed. There are four people from his past who he thinks could be responsible – and Strike knows that any one of them is capable of sustained and unspeakable brutality.”
  • What I thought: This was my favorite Strike novel to date. My barometer of a good mystery or thriller is whether or not I can figure out whodunnit before the big reveal; this one had me honestly unsure for 90% of the book. Rowling—ahem, Galbraith—made sure I didn’t start pulling together plot strings until the precise moment he wanted me to. All in all, I felt that the pacing and character development was excellent. I can’t wait for book four!
  • My rating: 5/5; Goodreads rating: 4.21/5

 

Which book should you download from Audible or onto your Kindle ASAP? 

Sidebar: I swear I’m not schilling for Amazon, though if they wanted to send some account credit my way, I’d be okay with that too.

Ugh, this is a tough one as I clearly really liked all of the books in this bunch. As I believe it’s a book that would appeal to a wide audience, I’m going to go with Career of Evil. Though it’s part of a series, I think you could read it without having read the other two first, and if you did like it, you have two more books to add to your TBR pile, which may or may not be a good thing for you.

Have you read any of these? Did anyone else decide they need a pocket-sized Roshar to provide a running commentary on their life choices or was that just me? Let me know in the comments!

 

Popsugar Reading Challege Update: 1-4

 

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Three months in and I’m a little over a quarter of the way through the 2016 Popsugar Reading Challenge (read more about the challenge and my progress here). After I started drafting this and was confronted by my utter lack of brevity in black and white, I decided I would spare you a monster catch-up post and break up it up into a series of three instead. You’re welcome, dear readers.

A book based on a fairy tale: A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

  • Why I picked it: After re-reading Renée Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn, I needed a little more Arabian Nights-action to tide me over until The Rose and the Dagger comes out, plus the cover is BEAUTIFUL.
  • Blurb in brief: “Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next.”
  • What I thought: Though the narrator is never named (none of the characters are besides Lo-Melkhiin), the author clearly took her inspiration from Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. This book is much more layered and nuanced than your typical YA Fantasy, which I wasn’t expecting, and Johnston does some interesting things with magic and the strength of family bonds in the story.
  • My rating: 4/5; Goodreads rating: 3.67/5

A YA bestseller: All Fall Down by Ally Carter (audiobook version)

  • Why I picked it: I’m a fan of Carter’s Heist Society series (and am dying for her to get back to it). I wanted something light to listen to while cruising down 59/idling on 610 during my daily commute, and a friend recently read and recommended the audiobook.
  • Blurb in brief: “Grace Blakely is absolutely certain of three things: 1. She is not crazy. 2. Her mother was murdered. 3. Someday she is going to find the killer and make him pay.”
  • What I thought: This was almost a DNF. Grace’s character grated on me for almost the entire book (my annoyance may have been exacerbated by the narrator’s reading of her), and I found myself having to suspend my disbelief even more than I usually do in an Ally Carter book—and she writes about spy schools for teens and crews of adolescent master thieves. A twist in the last quarter redeemed the plot a bit and bumped this up from a 2-star to a 3-star rating for me in the end.
  • My rating: 3/5; Goodreads rating: 3.79/5

A book set in Europe: Da Vinci’s Tiger by L. M. Elliot 

  • Why I picked it: Technically, I didn’t pick this one out myself. This book came in my December 2015, “Get Inspired” OwlCrate (along with a super yummy-smelling candle by Frostbeard and some other inspirational goodies). However, I do enjoy historical fiction, and since I have yet to start Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper (you may have noticed it on my TBR shelf), I decided to get my Da Vinci fix in YA form for the time being.
  • Blurb in brief: “For fans of rich and complex historical novels like Girl with a Pearl Earring or Code Name Verity, Laura Malone Elliott delivers the stunning tale of real-life Renaissance woman Ginevra de’ Benci, the inspiration for one of Leonardo da Vinci’s earliest masterpieces.”
  • What I thought: While I initially gave this book a 4/5 rating, on second-thought, I think I’d bump it down to a 3.5. The historical details seemed well-researched, and I liked getting to see a young Leonardo (so often in pop culture we get the older, crotchetier version), but it’s been a month since I’ve read it, and I don’t really remember much else about it.
  • My rating: 3.5/5; Goodreads rating: 3.33/5

A book you can finish in a day: The Scam by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg (audiobook and Kindle versions)

  • Why I picked it: I have a thing for charming con artists (as evidenced by my aforementioned love of Carter’s Heist Society series and my obsession with Neal Caffrey—RIP White Collar), and this series has that and more. It’s always a treat when I discover a new one has been released, usually at an airport or in the grocery store.
  • Blurb in brief: “Nicolas Fox is a charming con man and master thief on the run. Kate O’Hare is the FBI agent who is hot on his trail. At least that’s what everyone thinks. In reality, Fox and O’Hare are secretly working together to bring down super-criminals the law can’t touch. Criminals like brutal casino magnate Evan Trace.”
  • What I thought: In this fourth installment of the series, Fox and O’Hare and their band of merry misfits continue to be a delight. Austen this is not, but it’s fun and funny and perfect to read by the pool. Good thing I read it in February… Pro Tip: Skip the audiobook version.
  • My rating: 4/5; Goodreads rating: 3.97/5

Which book should you put in your Amazon cart ASAP? 

The Scam—But only if you’ve read the other Fox and O’Hare novels first!

Have you read any of these? Did anyone else want to punch something if Grace said “He KILLED my MOTHER” one more time, or was that just me? Let me know in the comments section!

 

The Books that Built Me: The Things They Carried

One of the best dates I’ve ever been on began with a trip to Barnes and Noble.

I still remember the rising excitement I felt as I saw the storefront and he pulled his truck into the parking garage behind it—where were we going? What were we going to do there? I was absolutely giddy.

Sidebar: The meet-cute of my dreams has always been running into a handsome stranger in the history section who would then offer to buy me the copy of Tom Hollard’s Rubicon or the Annotated Pride and Prejudice or the newest Robert Gaibraith I’d been carrying around while I browsed. Do that, then buy me a cup of tea, and I’ll probably be yours forever.

Once we got inside, he told me his plan: we would split up, go around the store and find five books that helped shape us into who were were that day, and then meet back up to share them.

Like, seriously? This is such stuff as dreams are made on. Gentlemen, take note.

I took off for the fiction section, my mind a whirlwind as I tried to figure out what I would choose. There were so many stories I loved, so many authors whose words and ideas had influenced me. It was a struggle to pick only five, but I managed. About fifteen minutes later, my date and I met up to share with one another the books that built us.

As I sit here today typing in the cafe of that very same Barnes and Noble, I confess my memory of that night is hazy. But I do remember one book in particular I chose that had a huge impact on me and my views on stories.

“But this too is true: stories can save us.”

 

I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien for the first time in my senior AP Lit class. Then, just as now, I was a bit of a procrastinator, and I had put off beginning the book until the night before it was due. I remember stretching across the bed in the middle bedroom at my house and falling into O’Brien’s account of the Vietnam War. I read until the wee hours without stopping, utterly engrossed. I read until I reached the final page, and then I shut the book and was quiet for awhile.

In his book, O’Brien blends and blurs what he calls “story-truth” and “happening-truth,” so that as a reader, you begin to reconsider what it means for something to be true. If a story is fictional, does that diminish the truth the story reveals? Can we find truth, real truth, in a story in which we might not find in a faithful, factual transcription of an event?

Why do we even tell stories in the first place?

 

 

A high school senior, I was a budding creative writer with dreams of one day becoming a novelist, and O’Brien’s book gripped me on so many levels. The story itself was unlike any other war novel I’d ever read—it was raw and unrelenting in its graphic descriptions of violence. The soldiers talked like how I would expect real soldiers to talk. They swore, they were crass, and they were heartbreakingly human. But O’Brien’s writing was also beautiful, certain passages taking on a rhythmic, lyrical quality which begged to be read aloud. But more than its central subject matter and the quality of the writing, what impressed me most was that there, in my hands, was a story about the importance of stories.

“The thing about a story is you dream as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”

I’d loved stories my whole life. And I knew there was something special about certain ones. Books that, when I felt homesick or alone, welcomed me into a world that was both fantastic and familiar. I knew that sometimes, the very act of writing down a story, whether it be more story-truth than factual-truth or born entirely from the kaleidoscope of what-would-happen-ifs inside my own head, gave space and form to those thoughts and turned them into something solid that could be reasoned through. There was a reason I kept journals throughout the prickly and emotion-fraught years of middle and high school.

In The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien is telling the story of character Tim O’Brien. He’s also telling the story of Ted Lavender, and Curt Lemon, and Linda, his childhood love. In telling their stories, he gives them life, and they live again in his imagination. He saves them. And in telling his story, he saves himself.

“I’m skimming across the surface of my own history…and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”

Stories can save us. In the telling and in the hearing, stories teach us truths about life and about ourselves. In stories, we can feel less small and insignificant and alone as we travel along roads with characters in whom we see facets of ourselves. In stories, the dead can live again.

Don’t talk to me, I’m reading.

Girl with lots of books

photo by Khomenko Maryna | image source

The other day, my roommate asked me if I always loved to read. Truthfully, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t.

My childhood was picture books read on the laps of my parents and sisters, the joy of my first library card, my cursive signature smudged and a little unsteady; an entire hand-me-down set of Little House on the Prairie books gone wavy and fat from being dropped in the bath, sitting in that same (now empty) tub, reading past my bedtime by the glow of a snake light I wore wrapped around my neck like its namesake.

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out while I was at summer camp, my parents refused to send me a copy, knowing full well I would park myself in my bunk with a supply of candy until I finished it rather than while away my hours canoeing or making lanyards (really, could you blame me?). Instead, my father sent an email in which he had painstakingly typed out the first paragraph and the last sentence from the copy which awaited me at home. Another girl in my cabin had parents who were less cruel, and I somehow negotiated a deal with her.

I was three-quarters of the way through her copy by the time Mom and Dad came to pick me up—which just goes to show: never underestimate my powers of persuasion when it comes to getting my hands on a book I want.

Seven years later, I was a college junior and bought the final book myself at midnight amid a sea of other students. I finished it at five that morning, tears streaming down my face in the quiet townhouse, telling myself that no, I couldn’t go wake up my roommate and command her to read faster so we could talk about it, even though I believed at that point that sleep was irrelevant.

Over the years, I have carved myself a temporary home between the pages of more books than I can count, and in doing so, breathed life into ink and paper so that characters and stories became fully fledged within the confines of my own imagination. Writing is a creative process, of course, but in many ways, the act of reading is too.

So yes, I love to read. I also love to write. Here, I want to write about reading, about what I read, and about the stories I love and why some of them have carved themselves a permanent home in my heart.

Hope you stick around.