My 2014 Reading Challenges: How did I do?

At the end of every year, I like to look back and examine how successful (or unsuccessful) I was at completing my yearly reading goals. In addition to being a time for me to nostalgically remember the great books I read over the year (and the disappointment in the duds), I also use these “year in reading” posts to re-examine my reading selections and habits. Other than the joy of connecting with other book bloggers and learning of (even more) great new books to read, this process of consciously chronicling my reading habits is one of the things I value most about having this blog. I can tell how much I’ve grown as a reader since I started blogging in April of 2012–the proof is in the difference in my reading lists! So with that being said, I hope you’ll forgive me dear readers for looking back at my 2014 year in reading (for the next two posts)…even if it is February.

As you’ll see below, I finished almost every reading challenge I set for myself in 2014. It was a stretch sometimes to get  all the right books read at the right times, but overall I really enjoyed it. Note: Click here to see how my 2014 Reading Challenges compared to my 2013 challenges.

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 My 2014 Reading Challenges–How did I do?

Challenge #1–Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Books and Chocolate

classics2014

Why I Joined (as per January 2014):

“I really enjoyed participating in this challenge in 2013 (even though I was one book short of completing it) and look forward to reading more great classic literature in 2014!”

How I did:

Requirements to complete the challenge:

1. A 20th Century Classic: The Call of the Wild by Jack London

2. A 19th Century Classic: Middlemarch by George Eliot

3. A Classic by a Woman Author: My Antonia by Willa Cather

4. A Classic in Translation: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

5. A Wartime Classic: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

6. A Classic by an Author Who Is New To You: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Optional Categories:

1. An American Classic: White Fang by Jack London

2. A Classic Mystery, Suspense or Thriller

3. A Historical Fiction Classic.

4. A Classic That’s Been Adapted Into a Movie or TV Series.

Takeaways:

I successfully completed this challenge in 2014 and even managed to read a book from the optional categories! My favorite book I read from this challenge would have to be Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Although it is epically long and was written nearly 150 years ago, it still felt very modern and I related to many of the situations in it. It’s definitely a book I want to re-read someday.

Overall, this was still one of my favorite reading challenges and I will definitely attempt to tackle it again in 2015. I like this challenge because it not only encourages me to read more classic literature, but it also helps guide me to different classic literature that I might never get around to reading otherwise.

Challenge #2What’s in a Name, hosted by The Worm Hole

challenge_2014whatsinaname1

Why I Joined (as per January 2014):

“I really enjoyed this challenge in 2013, and am looking forward to tackling it in 2014 as well!”

How I did:

Requirements to complete this challenge:

1. A reference to time:Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity by Katherine Boo

2. A position of royalty: The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

3. A number written in letters: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

4. A forename or names: Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende, Stella Bain by Anita Shreve, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, My Antonia by Willa Cather, and Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

5. A type or element of weather: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Takeaways:

I still love this challenge because it is both unique and an actual challenge to complete. It has also had the added benefit of getting some long standing “to-read” books off the shelf and into my hands. I’ll definitely do this challenge again in 2015.

It’s a 3 way tie for my favorite books from this challenge: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Maya’s Notebook, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Challenge #3Audio Book Challenge, hosted by Teresa’s Reading Corner

Small-2014-Audio-Book-Challenge-Button

Why I Joined (as per January 2014):

“Audio has become one of my favorite ways to enjoy a good book. I’m looking forward to seeing how many I can tackle in 2014!

How I did:

I hope to listen to more than 25 Audio Books.

I listened to 30 audio books in 2014. In the interest of saving some space, you can view the full list here.

Takeaways:

Now that audio is such an established medium in my reading habits, I don’t really feel like it was that difficult for me to complete this challenge. It definitely helped me get into the audio groove in 2013, but I don’t think it’s stretching my reading “muscles” anymore. However, I do still think the number of audio books I read is an interesting statistic and therefore will continue to track it in 2015.

Since I listened to so many good audio books last year it’s REALLY hard to pick a favorite. Or even 3. So I’m not even going to try right now. 🙂

Challenge #4New Authors Challenge, hosted by Literary Escapism

NewAuthorChallenge14

Why I Joined (as per January 2014):

“I enjoyed tracking all of the new authors I read in 2013, and look forward to exploring at least 25 new-to-me writers in 2014!”

How I did:

I am signing up to read books from 25 new authors.

I read books by 47 “new to me” authors in 2014. In the interest of saving some space, you can view the full list here.

Takeaways:

Like the audio book challenge above, the majority of the books I read now are from “new to me” authors. I think that signing up for this challenge two years in a row definitely encouraged me to seek out new voices, but again this habit is now so ingrained that it’s not really a challenge for me anymore.

Since the number of “new to me” authors basically encompasses my entire 2014 reading list, I don’t think I’m going to even try to choose a favorite.

Challenge #5The Eclectic Reader, hosted by Book’d Out

eclecticchallenge2014_300

Why I Joined (as per January 2014):

“I like to think of myself as someone who attempts books outside of their comfort zone, but admittedly there are a few genres in this challenge I’ve never attempted (namely graphic novels). So, I think it will be fun to try some of these–maybe I’ll find a new favorite!”

How I did:

Select, read and review a book from each genre listed below during the year for a total of 12 books:

1. Award Winning: The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo,  Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman, Divergent by Veronica Roth, and Insurgent by Veronica Roth, Allegiant by Veronica Roth, World War Z by Max Brooks, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

2. True Crime (Non Fiction): In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

3. Romantic Comedy: Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

4. Alternate History Fiction: World War Z by Max Brooks

5. Graphic Novel

6. Cosy Mystery Fiction: The Bride Wore Size 12 by Meg Cabot

7. Gothic Fiction: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

8. War/Military Fiction: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

9. Anthology: Dangerous Women edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner R. Dozois

10. Medical Thriller Fiction: Cut to the Bone by Jefferson Bass

11. Travel (Non Fiction): The Longest Road by Philip Caputo

12. Published in 2014: Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

Takeaways:

This was an awesome challenge and I got exactly what I hoped for out of it. Even though I didn’t finish it (I still haven’t read a graphic novel) I definitely read some books I wouldn’t have otherwise. I will definitely be attempting to complete this challenge again in 2015.

The biggest pleasant surprise was the anthology! In the past, I avoided collections of short stories because I thought just as soon as I got attached to a character or story it would be over. I was also afraid that in a big collection (like Dangerous Women) there would be like one good story and 20 medicore ones. Luckily this wasn’t the case for Dangerous Women, as there were many stories I liked and a couple that I loved. The positive reading experience has inspired me to put more collections of short stories on my “to-be-read” list!

Challenge #6Monthly Keyword Reading Challenge, hosted by Bookmark To Blog

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Why I Joined (as per January 2014):

I didn’t really give any specific reasons in the original post, but I assume it was because it was similar to the “What’s in a Name?” challenge (i.e. challenge #2 from above).

How I did:

In this challenge I will attempt to read one book each month whose title includes one or more of the key words for that month:

Jan- Angel, Secret, Clock, Black, Day, Wild: The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Feb- Her, Life, Night, Red, Dark, Island: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Mar- Forever, Inside, Storm, Sky, Flower, Stay: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity by Katherine Boo

Apr- Star, Light, Never, Princess, Break, Clear: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

May- Dawn, Death, End, Lost, Beautiful, And: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

Jun- Color, Beyond, Found, Place, Grave, Road: The Longest Road by Philip Caputo

Jul- Crash, Ship, Prince, Whisper, Sun, Of: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Aug- Forgotten, Down, True, Run, Danger, Me: True Believers by Kurt Andersen

Sep- Number, Take, Shadow, Ice, Who, After: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Oct- Ocean, Blood, Still, Out, The, Fate: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Nov- Into, Sound, Blue, House, My, Last: My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

Dec- Kiss, Fire, Ruin, White, Promise, Infinity: The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley

Takeaways:

I finished it!!!! This one really required me to plan ahead, but I found I enjoyed the challenge of trying to find just the right book to read every  month. Although I really enjoyed this challenge, I don’t think I’ll participate in 2015 since I’m already 1.5 months behind.

Challenge #7Chunkster Challenge, hosted by Chunkster Reading Challenge

chunkster challenge 2014a

Why I Joined (as per January 2014):

“In this challenge, the goal is to read an adult or YA book that is 450 pages or more. I like the idea of this challenge because it encourages you to read longer books. In 2013 I was so focused on trying to read 52 books, that I avoided reading anything that was too long. This year there are no set levels for this challenge, so I will attempt to read 2 chunksters in 2014.”

How I did:

1. The Pact by Jodi Picoult (497 pages)

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (512 pages)

3.  Middlemarch by George Eliot (794 pages)

4. Dangerous Women edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner R. Dozois (736 pages)

5. Divergent by Veronica Roth (487 pages)

6. Insurgent by Veronica Roth (525 pages)

7. Allegiant by Veronica Roth (544 pages)

8. A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin (784 pages)

9. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (560 pages)

10. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (544 pages)

11. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (487 pages)

12. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (546 pages)

13. Duty by Robert M. Gates (640 pages)

Takeaways:

I totally exceeded my own expectations with this challenge. I intend to set the bar a little higher for myself in 2015.

Personal Reading Goals:

I will try to read 35 books in 2014. Of these 35 books, I’d like at least 5 to count toward finishing The Big Read List and/or 1001 Books To Read Before You Die.

How I did:

1. The Call of the Wild by Jack London

2. The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

3.  Middlemarch by George Eliot

4. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

5. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

6. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

7. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

8. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

9. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

10. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

11. The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

12. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

13. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Takeaways:

Again, I exceeded my expectations here. Many of the books on this list were among my favorites from 2014, which I think speaks to quality and relevance of the books off these lists for me.

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Coming soon: A more general 2014 year-in-reading wrap-up (with statistics!) and the 2015 reading challenges I’m hoping to complete!

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Mini Book Reviews: The Club Dumas and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Since I’m super behind on my book reviews, I’m going to try writing some “mini” book reviews. I’m hopeful that writing a mini review will take some of the pressure off of writing full-fledged reviews so that I might be inspired to write a few more. 🙂

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Mini Book Reviews:

[1]

 

Club Dumas

Synopsis adapted from Goodreads:

Lucas Corso, middle-aged, tired, and cynical, is a book detective, a mercenary hired to hunt down rare editions for wealthy and unscrupulous clients. When a well-known bibliophile is found hanged, leaving behind part of the original manuscript of Alexandre Dumas’s “The Three Musketeers, ” Corso is brought in to authenticate the fragment.The task seems straightforward, but the unsuspecting Corso is soon drawn into a swirling plot involving devil worship, occult practices, and swashbuckling derring-do among a cast of characters bearing a suspicious resemblance to those of Dumas’s masterpiece. Aided by a mysterious beauty named for a Conan Doyle heroine, Corso travels from Madrid to Toledo to Paris in pursuit of a sinister and seemingly omniscient killer.

I was really excited to read this book based on the description alone. A rare book collector trying to authenticate a previously unknown chapter of The Three Musketeers–sign me up! Initially the novel really seemed to live up to all the hype. It was mysterious, fast-paced, and I loved learning more about Dumas and book binding. Then, the novel picked up a second plot line (i.e. the search for The Nine Doors) and things started to get sort of muddled for me. It probably didn’t help that I was listening to an audiobook instead of reading a print version, but it just seemed like these two story-lines did not mesh well together at all.  I think this book would have been so much stronger if Perez-Reverte had either stuck with one plot line or had done a better job of fleshing both out.  I definitely don’t regret reading this book, but I wouldn’t want to read it again. 2.5/5 stars (rounded up to 3 on Goodreads).

[2]

moonisaharshmistress

Synopsis adapted from Goodreads:

It is the year 2076, and the Moon is a penal colony for the rebellious and the unwanted of Earth. The exiles have created a libertarian society in order to survive in their harsh and unforgiving environment, their motto being TANSTAAFL: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”. Looming over them is the Luna Authority, the heavy-handed Earth administration, who trades life necessities to the “Loonies” in exchange for grain shipments to the starving populations of Earth.

As the situation steadily deteriorates the inhabitants of Luna come to realize that they have little choice but to revolt against Luna Authority in order to save themselves from resource exhaustion and a subsequent environmental apocalypse.

A small band of dissidents emerges to lead the revolution. This consists of a one-armed computer jock, a radical young woman, a past-his-prime academic, and a nearly omnipotent computer named Mike. These people ignite the fires of revolution, despite the near certainty of failure.

Of the 55 books I’ve read so far this year, only 2 of them can be considered “science fiction.” Clearly sci-fi is not a genre I read very often. So last year when a labmate suggested I read this book, I filed it away in my head for a “maybe someday when I’m really bored” book. Well that day came earlier this year when I really wanted to check out an audiobook from the library and everything else I was interested in was already checked out (I hate it when that happens!). I remembered this book and saw that it was available so I checked it out, and I’m really glad I did.

The story opens with Manuel (i.e. Mannie), who is a resident of the lunar colonies (i.e. “Loonies”). He is a computer technician for the master computers of the Lunar Authority, which is the lunar government established and run by the people of the Earth. One day Mannie discovers that one of the computers has “awakened” (i.e developed a self-awareness), and he develops a sort of friendship with the computer whom he calls “Mike.” In the midst of this burgeoning friendship a revolution is brewing amongst the lunar colonists, and Mannie and Mike quickly get swept up in the fight for independence.

Initially, the story was sort of hard to get into and I didn’t feel like I really understood what was going on. I eventually realized this was because the people of the lunar colony have different vocabulary and a strange way of phrasing sentences, but once I got used it I began to really enjoy the story. The Loonies and the place they live in are very different from my own, but Heinlein does such a fantastic job of world-building that I could imagine what it was like to live there. I was also impressed that the technology described didn’t seem too dated even though this book was published almost 50 years ago!

Despite the futuristic setting, this a book about politics at its core. While I may not have agreed with all of Heinlein’s theories, I found myself really thinking about the nature of revolutions and what it takes to build a nation from scratch. Mannie and his friends enter into the revolution with high ideals, but they quickly discover these theories don’t always hold up well in the real world. Heinlein’s descriptions of the intrigues and infighting of the new lunar politicians is eerily similar to that of the present day U. S. Congress.

Overall, I thought this was a really good read. It’s chock-full of political theory, but also has enough action to keep the story moving. I also thought the reader of the audiobook, Lloyd James, did an awesome job with the various accents and dialects of the characters. 4/5 stars.

 

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? 22.0

Happy Monday everyone! It’s been a long, long time since I participated in this meme…March to be exact. Yikes! Regardless, I’m back this week to share what I’ve been reading lately along with a mini-book review.

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

Mini Book Reviews:


 

PhD is not enough

Synopsis adapted from Goodreads:

Despite your graduate education, brainpower, and technical prowess, your career in scientific research is far from assured. Permanent positions are scarce, science survival is rarely part of formal graduate training, and a good mentor is hard to find.

In A Ph.D. Is Not Enough!, physicist Peter J. Feibelman lays out a rational path to a fulfilling long-term research career. He offers sound advice on selecting a thesis or postdoctoral adviser; choosing among research jobs in academia, government laboratories, and industry; preparing for an employment interview; and defining a research program. The guidance offered in A Ph.D. Is Not Enough! will help you make your oral presentations more effective, your journal articles more compelling, and your grant proposals more successful.

A classic guide for recent and soon-to-be graduates, A Ph.D. Is Not Enough! remains required reading for anyone on the threshold of a career in science. This new edition includes two new chapters and is revised and updated throughout to reflect how the revolution in electronic communication has transformed the field.

A quick glance at this title could be enough to make a frustrated graduate student want to throw this slim volume in Peter Feibelman’s face. What do you MEAN a Ph.D. isn’t enough?!?!?! But I suggest you resist that impulse, and read on.

Once you get past the eye-catching title, you will quickly realize that Dr. Feibelman, a Senior Scientist at Sandia National Laboratory, has written a clear, concise guide to help you navigate the tricky and sometimes treacherous path from graduate school to the future beyond. He usually conveys his points with both good humor and real-life examples from his years of experience.  I found the “Giving Talks,” “Publishing without Perishing,” “Choosing a Career Path,” and “Job Interviews” chapters especially helpful. Some of the points I sort of already knew intuitively, but it was good to see these reinforced by an expert!

A couple of caveats: 1) This isn’t an exhaustive “how-to” manual. He doesn’t give step-by-step instructions on how to secure your dream job or write a winning grant proposal. The purpose of this book is to make you aware of many crucial steps in the scientific job hunting process, not necessarily to describe exactly how to get there. 2) Most of the advice in this book is geared toward those pursuing careers in academia and/or a National Laboratory in a STEM-related field. This didn’t really bother me, even though I am pursuing an industrial R&D career, but it is something worth pointing out.

Overall, this is a very quick and worthwhile read if you are currently in graduate school, or are considering pursuing a scientific career. 4/5 stars.

Books I recently read:

 my-life-in-middlemarch

Synopsis adapted from Goodreads:

Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot s “Middlemarch,” regarded by many as the greatest English novel. After gaining admission to Oxford and moving to the United States to become a journalist, through several love affairs, then marriage, and family, Mead read and reread “Middlemarch.” The novel, which Virginia Woolf famously described as one of the few English novels written for grown-up people, offered Mead something that modern life and literature did not.

In this wise and revealing work of biography, reportage, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, “My Life in Middlemarch” takes the themes of Eliot s masterpiece the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot’s biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead’s life uncannily echo that of the author herself, “My Life in Middlemarch” is for every ardent lover of literature who cares about why we read books, and how they read us.

the black prince

Synopsis adapted from Goodreads:

Bradley Pearson, an unsuccessful novelist in his late fifties, has finally left his dull office job as an Inspector of Taxes. Bradley hopes to retire to the country, but predatory friends and relations dash his hopes of a peaceful retirement. He is tormented by his melancholic sister, who has decided to come live with him; his ex-wife, who has infuriating hopes of redeeming the past; her delinquent brother, who wants money and emotional confrontations; and Bradley’s friend and rival, Arnold Baffin, a younger, deplorably more successful author of commercial fiction. The ever-mounting action includes marital cross-purposes, seduction, suicide, abduction, romantic idylls, murder, and due process of law. Bradley tries to escape from it all but fails, leading to a violent climax and a coda that casts shifting perspectives on all that has preceded.

eleanor and park

Synopsis adapted from Goodreads:

Eleanor… Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough… Eleanor.

Park… He knows she’ll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises… Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

This Week I am reading:

the-poisonwood-bible

Synopsis adapted from Goodreads:

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it—from garden seeds to Scripture—is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy. Against this backdrop, Orleanna Price reconstructs the story of her evangelist husband’s part in the Western assault on Africa, a tale indelibly darkened by her own losses and unanswerable questions about her own culpability. Also narrating the story, by turns, are her four daughters—the self-centered, teenaged Rachel; shrewd adolescent twins Leah and Adah; and Ruth May, a prescient five-year-old. These sharply observant girls, who arrive in the Congo with racial preconceptions forged in 1950s Georgia, will be marked in surprisingly different ways by their father’s intractable mission, and by Africa itself. Ultimately each must strike her own separate path to salvation. Their passionately intertwined stories become a compelling exploration of moral risk and personal responsibility.

This Week I am listening to:

the rules of civility

Synopsis adapted from Goodreads:

In a jazz bar on the last night of 1937,
watching a quartet because she couldn’t afford to see the whole ensemble,
there were certain things Katey Kontent knew:

the location of every old church in Manhattan
how to sneak into the cinema
how to type eighty words a minute, five thousand an hour, and nine million a year
and that if you can still lose yourself in a Dickens novel then everything is going to be fine.

By the end of the year she’d learned:
how to live like a redhead
and insist upon the very best;
that riches can turn to rags in the trip of a heartbeat,
chance encounters can be fated, and the word ‘yes’ can be a poison.

That’s how quickly New York City comes about, like a weathervane, or the head of a cobra. Time tells which.

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What are you reading this week?

It's Monday

Linking up with Book Journey!

Book Review: Sisterland

sisterland

“We all make mistakes, don’t we? But if you can’t forgive yourself, you’ll always be an exile in your own life.” –Curtis Sittenfeld, Sisterland

Title: Sisterland
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Format: Audiobook
Reader: Rebecca Lowman
Publisher: Books on Tape
Publication Date: June, 25, 2013
Source: My local public library

Synopsis:

From an early age, Kate and her identical twin sister, Violet, knew that they were unlike everyone else. Kate and Vi were born with peculiar “senses”–innate psychic abilities concerning future events and other people’s secrets. Though Vi embraced her visions, Kate did her best to hide them.

Now, years later, their different paths have led them both back to their hometown of St. Louis. Vi has pursued an eccentric career as a psychic medium, while Kate, a devoted wife and mother, has settled down in the suburbs to raise her two young children. But when a minor earthquake hits in the middle of the night, the normal life Kate has always wished for begins to shift. After Vi goes on television to share a premonition that a devastating earthquake will soon hit the St. Louis area, Kate is mortified. More troubling, however, is her fear that Vi may be right. As the date of the predicted earthquake quickly approaches, Kate is forced to reconcile her fraught relationship with her sister, and truths about herself she’s long tried to deny.

–From Goodreads

My Thoughts:

In my 20+ years of reading, I have generally run across four types of books: 1) the kind that start out great and keep you hooked all throughout, 2) the slow-starters that make it worth your while in the end, 3) the slow-starters that never live up to their promise (and make you rue the day you ever saw that blasted book cover!), and last but not least 4) the kind that start out amazing (“Oh my goodness this is going to be a 5-star read!”) and let you down so much that you feel bitter every time you think about them. Sadly, Sisterland falls into the last category for me. It was all going so well until it wasn’t…

Initially, I picked up this book because it seemed like it would combine a story about a strong sisterly bond with some sort of mysterious event. I have a sister whom I’m very close to and I like to read books that examine the amazing and complicated web of relations that arise when you have a sister. But even I can admit that the sibling story can be a bit stale after awhile, so why not add in a little mystery? Sounds perfect, right? Right. Well the “mystery” quickly takes a backseat, and the book becomes a character study with little to no plot progression. This would probably turn some readers off, but I actually like a good character-driven story so I kept reading.

The story is told entirely through Kate’s perspective, both in the present and through flashbacks. In the present, Kate is a mother to two young children and wife to Jeremy. She describes (the story is told in first person) the struggles and rewards of motherhood and homemaking while also trying to rein in her less-conventional twin sister Violet (Vi). In the flashbacks, Kate describes her past and especially her relationship with Violet.  Although these flashbacks are a bit lengthy at times, they provide a lot of insight into the current state of Kate and Vi’s relationship. Kate is serious about her responsibilities and wants to “blend-in” while Vi loves to stand out and be spontaneous. These sisters clearly love each other and are always there for one another, but they rarely see eye-to-eye.

Some reviewers have commented that Kate is “boring,” but I disagree with this assessment. I found her to be interesting, sometimes humorous, compassionate, and honest. She felt real, almost as if she was someone I knew in real life. In my opinion, these character-driven sections are the best part of the book. Sittenfeld’s prose is sharp and spot on.

However, during the last 1/3 of the book the “action” begins and things just go from bad to worse. Many of the things that occur in this section of the book are not only implausible, but just completely unbelievable. It was incredibility disappointing to see this story veer from an interesting, character-driven drama to a blase melodrama. Not only is the plot direction Sittenfeld chose way overdone, but in this case it was not even done well. In recent memory, Sisterland is the most disappointing reading experience I can recall.

Admittedly this is probably the harshest review I’ve written yet, which is surprising considering how excited I was about it during the first 2/3 of the book. Seriously, it was a 4-5 star read until “the big event” and all the ridiculousness that followed. I’ve looked through reader comments and it seems nearly everyone agrees with me. I’m not sure I’d recommend this book to anyone. It has its bright moments, but these are overshadowed by a poorly thought-out ending.

My Review In Four Lines:

  1. Rating: 2/5 stars
  2. What I liked: The strong character-driven sections (basically the first 2/3 of the novel)
  3. What I didn’t like: The ending (*shudders*)
  4. I would recommend this book for: People who enjoy family melodramas

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Note: I did not receive any compensation whatsoever for this book review. All opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

MissPeregrineCover

“I used to dream about escaping my ordinary life, but my life was never ordinary. I had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was.” –Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Title: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Author: Ransom Riggs
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Quirk
Publication Date: June 4, 2013
Source: Personal Collection

Synopsis:

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of very curious photographs.

It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

–From Goodreads

My Thoughts:

I started reading this book while sitting on an airplane that was “overweight” and was consequently delayed for an hour and half. In spite of (or maybe because of) the “will we or won’t we ever leave the ground” drama playing out in the background, I found myself getting surprisingly sucked into this novel. I had previously held out on reading Miss. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children because I had been run over by the “hype train” one too many times (i.e. The Hunger Games trilogy, Water for Elephants, etc), and I learned it was part of a series (groan). However, I kept hearing about how “unique” the book is, and that it was going to be made into a movie. So I caved.

As I alluded to above, the novel starts off really strong. I enjoyed following Jacob, the protagonist, as he navigated the often tricky teenage existence. He has a job he hates (and doesn’t try very hard at), his parents don’t understand him, and he doesn’t fit in very well with people his own age. Jacob is however very close with his grandfather, Abraham, who shows him pictures of children he knew on an island in Wales. Riggs’s prose is sharp and witty in these early pages, and I found myself nearly laughing out loud (on a crowded plane full of cranky passengers nonetheless). The vintage photographs were also fascinating, and I liked how they were tied into the story.

However, after Jacob sets off in search of the children in the photographs my enthusiasm for the story began to wane.  The prose became much more sloppy, and the photographs come so quickly at parts that they seem to detract from the story rather than add to it. This is especially true with regard to the peculiar children themselves–I had to keep flipping back and forth because I couldn’t keep them all straight. I also had a hard time accepting the world Riggs created since it wasn’t well explained and there were many plot holes in the explanation. Hopefully, some of these will be cleared up in the next book in the series.

What I think this book is really lacking (or at least lacking for me) is character development. Aside from Jacob, most of the other characters are so flat and underdeveloped that they are forgettable. There are a few who stood out (Emma, Abraham, Miss Peregrine), but they were in the minority. I especially do not understand why more time wasn’t devoted to Jacob’s parents. Clearly, Riggs is trying to paint them as the stereotypically “absent and vapid” parents, but they were almost comically unbelievable to me. Why not just have Jacob be raised by his grandfather? Not only would little have been lost from the plot by omitting Jacob’s parents, but I think the narrative would have felt more genuine.

And one other thing: the love story? No. Just no. I can’t say anymore without giving away spoilers, but if you’ve read it I’m sure you understand what I’m getting at.

Overall, I really like the premise of this novel and am curious enough after reading the ending to give the second book in the series, Hollow City, a try. The best parts of the book–the beginning, the atmospheric setting of Wales, and the peculiar children–offset the bad parts enough to make the reading experience enjoyable. So in the end, while this book didn’t live up to its initial promise for me, I still think it was pretty good.

What Others Had To Say:

*Let me know if you have a review published and I’ll add a link to it!

My Review In Four Lines:

  1. Rating: 3/5 stars
  2. What I liked: The visually stunning photographs, the overall premise of the novel
  3. What I didn’t like: Lack of character development, the bad romance, and slow second half of the book
  4. I would recommend this book for: People who like vintage photographs and/or enjoy young adult books

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Note: I did not receive any compensation whatsoever for this book review. All opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review: The Interestings

The Interestings

“You didn’t always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation. You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting.” –Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

Title: The Interestings
Author: Meg Wolitzer
Format: Audio
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: April 9, 2013
Source: My local public library

Synopsis:

The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.

The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful—true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken.

Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters who come together and apart in a changing New York City, The Interestings explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life.

–Adapted from Goodreads

My Thoughts:

In reading the synopsis for this novel, I instantly recalled the glorious, carefree summers of my pre-teen and teenage years. I spent my days lounging around the living room reading novels and dreaming about the future, and my nights indulging my childhood passion: musical theater.  I attended theater camps, participated in community theater shows, and volunteered at the theater whenever I had the chance. I loved being immersed in that wacky and creative atmosphere, and like the main character, Jules, in The Interestings I was certain my future lay within a theater’s comforting walls. Of course, a career in the arts is not the path my life nor most of the characters in The Interestings takes, and the disappointment, envy, and eventual acceptance of this fact comprises much of Wolitzer’s new novel.

The novel opens with the introduction of the group of teenagers who dub themselves “The Interestings” at a summer camp for the arts in the 1970’s. Much of the novel is told through the perspective of Julie (aka Jules) Jacobson, who has recently lost her father and finds solace in theater and the group of privileged teenagers who befriend her. The bond formed between the group that summer changes Julie’s life, and the rest of the novel follows “the interestings” through the years that follow.

I really enjoyed this novel and many of the questions it raised, such as “am I who I thought I would be when I was child?” Most of us grow up with big childhood dreams or at least have a vision of the interesting life we will have when we are grown. A select few actually accomplish these lofty goals, while most of us end up pursuing more ordinary life roles. In The Interestings, Jules aspires to be an actress as a young adult, but eventually gives up on this dream and becomes a social worker instead. While watching her friends succeed, she gets envious and bitter which causes her to overlook the beauty in her “ordinary” life.

Although I found Julie’s malcontent to be kind of annoying at times, I did think it was so true. There are so many people in the world focused on what they don’t have that they miss out on what is right in front of them. In fact, I think my favorite character in the book is Julie’s Husband, Dennis, who is wonderfully grounded in the ordinary. Dennis is someone who is comfortable with himself and his “ordinary” life. He has a great line in the book when he announces to Jules during an argument that “the interesting aren’t all that interesting,” which causes Jules to sort of let go of her fixed (and frankly warped) idea of specialness.

At its core, I think this is a book about self-reinvention. Throughout the novel, each character confronts many situations where the expectations for their lives don’t match up to the reality they are living. Whether its Julie working as a social worker, Dennis battling chronic depression, or Ethan’s inability to connect with his autistic son, each character finds a way to accept and in some cases even embrace life’s curve balls. As in real life, no character is immutable and each has the ability to change their situation or at least their perspective of it.

Overall I really enjoyed this book and have found myself thinking back on it time and again. The characters are beautifully written, and I enjoyed seeing how they evolved over time.

What Others Had To Say:

The Relentless Reader

Literary Lindsey

My Review In Three Lines:

  1. Rating: 4/5 stars
  2. What I liked: The theme of self-reinvention and learning to be happy with (and love) the life you have
  3. What I didn’t enjoy as much: I thought the ending was a bit abrupt

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Linking up with Blonde…Undercover Blonde for Book Club Friday.

Note: I did not receive any compensation whatsoever for this book review.

Book Review: Thunderhead

Title: Thunderhead
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Format: Audiobook
Reader: Scott Brick
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Publication Date: August 3, 2010
Source: My local public library

Synopsis:

Nora Kelly, a young archaeologist in Santa Fe, receives a letter written sixteen years ago, yet mysteriously mailed only recently. In it her father, long believed dead, hints at a fantastic discovery that will make him famous and rich—the lost city of an ancient civilization that suddenly vanished a thousand years ago. Now Nora is leading an expedition into a harsh, remote corner of Utah’s canyon country. Searching for her father and his glory, Nora begins to unravel the greatest riddle of American archeology. But what she unearths will be the newest of horrors..

–From Goodreads

My Thoughts:

When I was in high school I would devour thrillers like they were candy. My appetite for them was seemingly endless…until I went to college. Then it was time to read serious, important, thought-provoking literature (on top of my engineering textbooks) because that’s serious, studious students do. Right? Right. Needless to say, I thought my days of binging on thrillers were behind me. Then, I read Await Your Reply, which was a REALLY good book but was a brutally slow read (well “listen” since it was the audiobook) for me. After that I needed something lighter, something that would “sweep me away” (in a non-romance novel kind of way). Enter Thunderhead.

The story opens with Nora Kelly, a young archeologist who receives a letter from her (deceased) father dated 16 years ago. In it, he details how he has found Quivira, the lost City of Gold. Nora, who is a struggling academic, puts together a team and heads to Utah’s Canyon Country to try to locate it. When they finally arrive at their destination, Nora and the team encounter obstacles, both internal and external, and what they find surprises them all (and me too).

After struggling through Await Your Reply, this novel was a much needed change of pace. The drama/suspense in the story hooked me right away, and I never found myself having those “oh get to the point already!!!” moments like I did with Await Your Reply. Although certain aspects of the story are somewhat predictable, there were a few surprising plot twists I didn’t see coming. Additionally, I have also always really loved the natural beauty of the American Southwest, and I really liked how the authors made liberal use of the setting. Finally, I also enjoyed learning about the history and the culture of the Anasazi people–I like feeling like I’m learning things while I’m reading fiction.

But as usual there were some things I didn’t really like…this is a “dreaded 3 star review” after all. The thing that bothered me the most was the characters–there are just too many of them. I seriously couldn’t keep them all straight!! I’m sure many, many people would be required for the type of archeological expedition outlined in this novel…but I’m not sure I needed to read about all of them. There were so many complicated back stories and people who seemed to have overlapping roles, and for the longest time I found myself asking “now who is he again?!”. Eventually I just gave up trying and went along for the ride. In addition to having too many characters, I  felt like the ones I could actually keep track of were pigeon-holed into stereotypical (and boringly predictable) roles. There was the young struggling academic, the rich girl with a chip on her shoulder and a lot to prove, the shrewd and cunning journalist, the wise financial backer who knows more than he lets on…you get the picture. I just wanted one of them to step out of their prescribed roles and surprise me, but sadly that never happened.

Overall, Thunderhead is an entertaining thriller that mixes history and archeology with some good ole fashioned suspense. While it’s not a great work of literature by any means, I would definitely recommend it if you are looking for something fun to read!

What Others Had To Say:

*Let me know if you have posted a review of this book that I missed!

My Review In Four Lines:

  1. Rating: 3.5/5 stars
  2. What I liked: The unexpected plot twists and learning about history of the Anasazi people
  3. What I didn’t enjoy as much: I felt there were too many characters and that they were pigeon-holed into stereotypes.
  4. I would recommend this book for: People who like thrillers or books involving archeology/history

***

Linking up with Blonde…Undercover Blonde for Book Club Friday.

Note: I did not receive any compensation whatsoever for this book review.

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