Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What I Read Wednesday

It's Wednesday! I almost forgot.

Lucky Us: A Novel
When Eva's father's wife dies, Eva learns that her father has a whole life separate from her. Mainly that he doesn't travel for business, instead he spends his time with his other wife and his other daughter. Tired of being a mom, Eva's mom drops her at her father's, where Eva quickly bonds with her sister Iris. Disappointed by the man who is their father, Eva and Iris strike off on their own, heading to California--even though Eva should still be in school. Iris's plan to be a movie star seems to be on track, until she's derailed by a scandal. Their father swoops in to rescue them, and the two leave on a new adventure. This was a lovely, beautiful book full of rich details and adventures. I fell in love with the characters and didn't want it to end.

After the loss of her boyfriend Reeve, Jam ends up at the Wooden Barn--a boarding school for kids with issues. Jam finds herself signed up for a special topics English class, focusing entirely on the works and life of Sylvia Plath. Part of the assignment is to write in a journal--only Jam and her classmates quickly discover that there is something magical about the journals, something that transports them to the person or life or feeling they've lost. Many of the reviews discuss the surprise ending, and I will be honest… I figured it out about halfway through the book, which changed things slightly for me. Still, I was engaged with the stories and losses of Jam's classmates, who I felt were well developed.

Gilead: A Novel
This is by the same author of Lila and features the Rev John Ames, a major character in Lila. I will be honest--I went into this book with high expectations because it was critically acclaimed and had tons of rave reviews on Amazon. Was it a good book? Yes. But it didn't strike a chord with me as I thought it might. Written from the voice of John Ames, in a series of letters to his young son, this book discusses life, memories and the fear of aging and dying. The plot of Lila actually pre-dates this book somewhat, so it was interesting to make those connections. The prose was absolutely stunning, but it is not the kind of read that you can't put down. At least not for me.

Shotgun Lovesongs: A Novel
When I posted about books on Facebook (which culminated in a bunch of people telling me they never read and I have too much time on my hands--oh, Facebook), Corrin said this was her favorite of the year. The narrative is shared by five characters: Ronny, Lee, Kip and Henry and Henry's wife, Beth, take turns narrating and sharing their stories and perspectives while centered around their small hometown of Little Wing, WI. Having grown up in a small town (cue John Mellencamp) and moving to an even smaller town, there is much in here that I found relatable. Ronny was a rodeo store, until one night he fell while drunk and damaged his brain. Lee is the local boy who made it big, a rock star dating a movie star. Kip left the small town for the big city but returned with a plan to make the small town successful again. Henry never left and lives the simple life of every farmer, alongside his wife Beth. In the midst of the novel, drama and heartbreak occur among the characters with a few twists and turns. I flew through this book because I loved it. I loved the men and the women pretreated in these pages, and I loved the town.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

What I Read Wednesday

Brown Girl Dreaming
Every now and then, I read a book that is so fabulous and strikes me in such a way that I wish I could immediately teach it to my students (I can't, by the way, to quell any questions of why don't I--I do not have that sort of power, alas). This is one of those books. Told entirely in free verse, this book is a memoir of the author's childhood years. And although I usually wish for memoirs to entail something fabulous and amazing, her early years were just enough. Torn between the North and the South, the still very segregated South, Woodson is trying to find her voice and her place as a child, while balancing a torn family and a sometimes unpopular religion. It is a beautiful story and although I couldn't relate to it or even begin to put myself in her shoes, it struck me how very real her story is and how much it needed to be told.

The Empathy Exams: Essays
Told in a series of essays, Leslie Jamison explores what lies beneath all basic human connections: empathy. What makes us feel for and understand one another? I struggled somewhat to relate to her personal essays because she struck an over-priveleged tone (oops, I wasn't empathetic), but the essays where she simply explored the ideas of empathy resonated. In one, she explores a disease that may be real or that may be psychosomatic and reading that definitely made me feel for the people who believe they have this disease and the doctors who say they do not. In another, she talked about the West Memphis Three and how when she first watched it as a teen, she was struck with outrage at these falsely accused boys. Then as an adult, she realized she couldn't say whether or not the boys were guilty… and why doesn't anyone talk about the three boys who died that day? And as this is honestly reflective of my opinions on the case, it struck me how our empathy changes. How we gain a bigger worldview and it shifts. I definitely enjoyed these.

An Unnecessary Woman
If I had to describe this novel, it would be: slow moving with a brilliant voice. The voice! This story is told entirely from a 70 year old Lebanese woman, Aaliya, who spends her days virtually alone, translating her beloved books into other languages. She doesn't work. She is a widow with no children. With each finished book, she seals them in a box in her apartment where they will never see the light of day. She is, for all purposes, an unnecessary woman with no contribution to her society. This book is like sitting down to a cup of coffee with a good friend and letting the conversation meander between past and present. There is no stunning plot twist, but I fell in love with Aaliya and the wit and intelligence she carried with her.

The Forgers
This was classified as a mystery book, but I found the general storyline much more intriguing than the actual mystery. Adam Diehl, a rare books collector, is savagely attacked inside his home, his hands severed and disposed of. Adam's sister Meghan and her boyfriend (the narrator of the story, named Will) are shocked. As the story continues, the reader learns that the narrator is also involved in rare books. Namely, that he was shamed from the rare books community when it was discovered that he was in the habit of forging to enhance the worth and interest of various rare books. Eventually Will begins to receive threatening letters from dead authors (a sort of rare books forgery version of "I know what you did last summer") insinuating that Will killed Adam and that Will must pay. Although Will maintains his innocence, he pays off the blackmailer simply to keep him from Meghan who is still grieving over the loss of her brother. If you're looking for an actual murder mystery with a stunning twist at the end, this probably isn't it. If you're looking for a book that makes you step back and examine the narrator, this is definitely it.

Lila: A Novel
I haven't read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by this same author, but it is definitely on my list. Lila was born into a family who didn't love her before being rescued at the age of four by a woman named Doll who did odd jobs around the house. It is Doll who names Lila and Doll who saves Lila from a negligent family. Life is not easy with Doll, though, and they must constantly be on the move to avoid being recognized. Eventually, Lila ends up in a shack outside of a small town, where she finds comfort and safety with an old preacher. It's difficult to discuss much beyond this, but I have a lot of thoughts about some of the ambiguity within the novel. Certain things the writer left for the reader to wonder, but I will say that I loved this story. It reminded me very much of the writing style of Kent Haruf (who, by the way, died last month--do his genius a favor and pick up one of his books today).

What are you reading?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Sun'll Come Out... [Giveaway]

**Giveaway closed. Congrats to Keli, lucky comment #2**

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When I was in elementary school, my parents took me to see Annie on stage. They even bought me a cassette tape of the score (dating myself here). I spent countless hours listening to it on my Walkman (again, dating myself) and belting out the tunes along with Annie (horribly off tune). When I heard that Annie was soon to be released as a movie, I immediately started making plans to see it. Because Annie! Although this is an adapted version of the original, it still sounds pretty fun, especially for kids. Check out the official site from Sony Pictures to learn more about the movie, directed by Will Smith and Jay-Z.

I was lucky enough to get an Annie prize pack and I have one to giveaway to you, too. The prize pack includes:
- One (1) official ANNIE kids shirt - photo
- One (1) 'Build A Brighter Tomorrow' activity book - photo
- One (1) sticker sheet - photo
- One (1) Scholastic ANNIE poster - PDF

Check out the shirt!
I love the baseball shirt style and especially love that it can be worn by a boy or a girl. I am hoping that once we get ours, Luke and I can go see the movie.

To enter the giveaway, simply answer this question: If you're a fan of Annie, what is your favorite song? ["It's a hard knock life... for MEEEEE"] If you're not overly familiar with the songs, tell me why you might like to see the movie.
Giveaway closes one week from tomorrow, Friday, December 26th.

Although I was given a prize pack for this post, all opinions are my own

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What I Read Wednesday

I kind of forgot it was Wednesday and also this week has been terribly long.

Revolution (The Sixties Trilogy)
Book #2 in the Sixties trilogy. I LOVE these books. They intersperse history with historical fiction, which I love. Sunny's town is being invaded in the 1960s. As time goes on, she learns that the invaders are here to help the African-Americans in her town register to vote. Her small Mississippi town is divided, angry and violent. Her point-of-view is interwoven with that of others who live in her town, telling a story of--well--revolution.

Luc's mother warned him of the mock men, chimpanzees, who live in the jungle (the inside). But Luc is older now, an orphan after his mother and sister die of the worm (HIV). A professor comes along and proposes to take Luc into the jungle with him to study the chimpanzees. Originally wary, Luc grows to love the jungle, the chimpanzees and his professor. As the story evolves, you grow along with Luc and his experiences and it's really, in many ways, a beautiful story of Africa, endangered species and just trying to survive.

And that's it. Is it break yet? What are you reading?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What I Read Wednesday

After not getting any books in from the library forever, I got a million at once. I'm not exaggerating. The librarians had to give Shane a bag to cart them all home. I haven't even done my usual best books of December library request because so many books! So little time!

Leaving Time: A Novel
I keep reading Jodi Picoult books because I remember when she first started writing, her books were new and refreshing and engaging. Now they follow the John Grisham script where the characters aren't that engaging, but you keep reading for the plot twist. And then I get so hung up in the plot twist that it's all I focus on. In this book, I failed to guess the plot twist. Shame on me. This book focuses on Jenna, an adolescent girl who spends most of her life obsessing over her mother, who disappeared after a fatal and tragic accident at the elephant preserve ran by her mother and father. Having abandoned hope of her mother turning up on the internet, Jenna does two things: she hires a private investigator (the man who worked her mother's case) and a psychic. Although Jenna stumbles into the psychic's house, she learns later that the psychic was once famous for missing persons' cases, until she failed to find a famous politician's son while he was still leaving. This book bounces between the perspective of Jenna, the psychic, the PI and Jenna's mother. It was enjoyable to just read, but as usual, I felt the characters lacked depth because they were all just a set up for the grand plot twist at the end.

Ketchup Clouds
This book is told through letters from Zoe to a death row inmate, Stuart Harris. She doesn't know him, instead she picks his name at random. She writes to tell him that they have something in common--she has also killed someone she loved. The letters build up to the anniversary of this someone's death, though you aren't really sure until the end just who she killed and how. I loved the ambiguity--does Stuart respond to her letters? Does anyone ever find out what truly happened? This was a really good, engaging read.

All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry (2013) Hardcover
Set during Puritan times, this book tells the story of Judith. Judith disappeared along with her best friend. Two years later, only Judith returned--missing her tongue. Seen as an outcast and a fallen woman by the town, no one speaks to Judith. No one calls her by name. She is unable and afraid to attempt to speak with her mutilated mouth. Instead, she narrates the novel mostly through her thoughts and silent observations. A tragic event forces Judith to find her voice and to begin to try to speak her story. This one gripped me. It was equal parts awful and hopeful.

The Wicked Girls: A Novel
Two 11 year old girls meet for the first time. At the end of the day, they will have killed a child. 25 years later, the two girls are brought together again as a serial killer stalks a small seaside town. Although they are court ordered by law to keep apart from one another and although no one knows their true identities, the two girls--now women--are forced to choose how they will keep their secrets hidden. I liked this book, although I guessed the identity of the serial killer a little too easily. Still, it was a twisting story, one that raised a lot of questions about crime and punishment.

I love coming of age stories. Coming of age stories in a slightly medically advanced world where head transplants are a thing? Even better. Travis Coates was dying of cancer, so he chose to have his head cryogenically frozen. Five years later, he comes back to life with his head attached to a new body. He feels like no time has passed at all. Only, it has. His best friend is in college and not who he thought he'd be. His girlfriend is now engaged to someone else. And Travis, Travis is a sixteen year old who doesn't understand how things changed the way they did. This is not a book about science or about a dystopian world, even. It's a book about a boy trying to fit in, with just one little twist.

Countdown (Sixties Trilogy)
Book one of the Sixties trilogy. Franny Chapman is an 11 year old girl in 1962, facing problems from atomic bomb drills at school to getting the boy across the street to notice her. Interwoven with Franny's stories are newspaper articles, photographs and movie clips from this time period, which I loved. The author managed to weave history and fiction seamlessly together, in a very interesting way. I admittedly don't know much about the Cuban Missile Crisis, but this book mapped out a great portion of it--while being engaging and making me want to read more! I'm on book 2 of the trilogy and love it.

What are you reading?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Golden Tote December Review

I spent today at home with sinus gunk and with a sick kid to boot, but UPS saved the day by delivering my December tote a day early! I have to say, this is probably my favorite tote yet.

If you haven't read any of my previous reviews, let me tell you a little about Golden Tote. Like Stitch Fix, it is a stylist curated tote. Unlike Stitch Fix, you get to pick one or two chosen items, depending on the base point of the tote. Then a stylist adds in surprise clothing items based off of your style profile and any comments you might leave. Unlike Stitch Fix, you cannot return items that don't interest you or don't fit, but the price point per item is much, much lower than Stitch Fix. There is also a Golden Tote trading community on Facebook where you sell or trade unwanted items--I have had a lot of luck in this community!

I had a few referral credits this month, so I was able to order a single piece on Black Friday and order a tote the Monday afterward. Although they always reveal the new month's tote on the first Monday, this Monday happened to fall on Cyber Monday. They honored that by throwing in an extra surprise clothing item with each tote ordered that Monday. How could I resist?!
As always, the clothes came with lovely packaging and a style card for my two chosen items.
This is what I ordered on Black Friday: the holiday sparkle sweater set by Skies are Blue. It came with a necklace, too.

In fact, Morgan is kind of obsessed with the necklace. I need to make sure to keep it away from her!
My first chosen item in the tote was the Winter Wonderland top by Skies are Blue. I love it. Metallic and flowy with sheer fabric. It's not the warmest top, but it's very festive and so feminine. 

My next chosen item was also by Skies are Blue, the Tis the Season dress. Oh my goodness. I am at home with no makeup and wet hair, yet I felt like a princess as soon as I put this on.
Also, it has POCKETS. 
My first surprise item was a top by Le Lis. Le Lis are usually pretty unique and have split backs. This one was no exception. The front is a sparkly sweater material with sheer sleeves and a sheer underlay. The back has a sheer split in it. Love it. So unique to anything I own.
This next one is by Catwalk Studio. I was a little unsure at first because it just looks BIG and has a lot of material. It's a sweater type material with a sheer underlay. But then I put it on and wow. It might not be the most flattering cut, but it is WARM and buttery soft. This will get me through the winter. 
Hourglass Lilly tunic. I love Hourglass Lilly tunics and asked for one in my order comments, so I am glad the stylist followed through. Long sleeve and makes a perfect warm to cold weather transition piece. 
Naked Zebra top. This is a pretty basic top, but the sleeves have zipper detailing and the neckline has a faux leather trim. I love how minor details can make a piece interesting.
And finally, the Peppermint skirt. I LOVE this. First of all, I am thankful my stylist followed my instructions to size up from a small to medium in skirts because this is very form fitting. It is also, however, the kind of form fitting that can be flattering if sized right. It hits right at the knee with a lace overlay. I love pencil skirts. Love. 

So, that's my December Golden Tote. I am feeling pretty good about how I'll look this month!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What I Read Wednesday

Bear with me, friends. I have taken a lot of migraine meds today and everything is quite fuzzy.

Ordinary Grace: A Novel
I love coming of age stories. This is a coming of age story with a bonus mystery. It's the summer of 1962 and Frank is enjoying small town life with little responsibility. Unfortunately, 1961 is also the summer of death and the summer of secrets. This book to me was absolutely outstanding. Frank is on the cusp of adulthood and is thrust there before his time due to accidents, suicide, murder and much more. The story chronicles this one summer in which his small town seems to fall apart before his very eyes. Frank tries desperately to make sense of it, to determine whether he believes steadfastly in God like his Methodist preacher father, or whether he cannot believe in a supreme being who would bring such suffering. Characters were rich and believable and the plot was engaging.

I had to go gently into this book because it was a difficult read. It reminded me much of The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. A series of short stories spawning over various parts of the Iraq and Afghanistan war, these were mostly poignant, moving stories about the things the men of the new generation of war carry with them. There were some humorous stories, too, but mostly they were strong, provocative and made you think.

I enjoyed the Matched series by Ally Condie, so I was interested to see what she did. This book is dystopian, but of a different kind. In a world where aboveground is mostly ruined from pollution, a city is built under the sea. Some stay above and some stay below. Above sends food, while below mines for ore. In the midst of going below ground, miracles happen. Bats appear, though no animals were taken below ground. And some men and women are born and become sirens. When kids come of age, they can choose to stay below or go above. Rio always dreamed of going above. Rio is a siren, but her twin sister Bay is not. When choosing day comes, Rio says she will stay below, thinking her sister will do the same. Then Bay chooses to go above and Rio is left wondering, seeking answers from her siren aunt Maire. When Atlantia is in danger of dying, it is up to Rio and Maire to join together and try to save their city. This was a very unique dystopia. Some of it was predictable, but it was an interesting storyline. My only complaint is I felt the ending was kind of rushed, otherwise it held my attention.

What are you reading?