Category Archives: Books

Marge’s Quarterly Book Reviews: Q1 2014 Edition

Goodreads keeps reminding me that I’m behind on my book goal for 2014 so far, but I think, given the fact that I’ve been crazy busy, I’m doing pretty damn good.

Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt

I was going to Ireland, and I had never read Angela’s Ashes, so that needed to change. Though it took me a while to get into it, I eventually did. What the McCourt family went through in Limerick was just terrible, stuck in a cycle of poverty, with an alcoholic patriarch and sick kids with no money for the doctor. Aside from the fact that he has to steal to help feed his brothers and sisters and try to wrangle his father home from the pubs, little Frankie McCourt has typical boyhood adventures, from selling “scandalous” newspaper pages about birth control to trying to skip out on Irish dance lessons. Ultimately, this is an authentic story of a man who overcame his circumstances, looked past his mistakes and shortcomings, and decided he wanted a better life for himself. I’m looking forward to reading ‘Tis, now.

Looking for Alaska – John Green

I polished off this book at about 2 AM in a nice quiet area of the SeaTac airport. John Green somehow takes YA fiction and elevates it. Everyone, including me, is lauding The Fault in Our Stars, but I thought Looking for Alaska was JUST as good. It deals with love. It deals with loss. It deals with teenagers trying to come into their own and making mistakes. I wanted to take the characters and hug them, because their insights into the events that transcribe through their school year just make my heart hurt. I cried a little bit in the airport. Miles is sick of not having friends, and convinces his parents to send him to boarding school, where he meets a ragtag band of students that become like family. He falls in love with a spitfire of a girl named Alaska…and that’s all I’m going to say. READ IT.

An Abundance of Katherines – John Green

I did NOT like this as much as Looking for Alaska. Still good, still John Green, but not AS good as the others, in my opinion. Collin only dates Katherines. He’s been dumped nineteen times, always by a Katherine. After his latest dumping, he and his lovable, comical, and chubby best friend (Hasan) go on a soul-searching road trip, and Collin tries to create a formula that will predict the trajectory of a relationship, using all his Katherines as data points. Collin and Hasan end up in a town called Gutshot, and through their happenstance of a summer job, Collin may just be falling for his first non-Katherine. It was hard for me to finish this one – at points I felt like it would never end. But it did, it had a happy ending, however the road to get there wasn’t satisfying. Read it if you need to round out your John Green collection, but otherwise, meh.

The Ghost Bride – Yangsze Choo

I was actually really into this book, which explored a facet of Asian culture that I’d never heard of before – ghost marriages. Li Lan has no marriage prospects, until she is approached about a ghost marriage to a deceased rich man, heir to a great family fortune. She would be taken care of for the rest of her life (an idea her increasingly impoverished father finds attractive), but would be unable to marry were she to fall in love with someone still breathing. When Li Lan tries to stall the ghost marriage, her spectral intended begins to mercilessly haunt her, especially after she begins to fall for his cousin (who is still alive). Still following? Yeah, it’s confusing. But the background in eastern religion is fascinating, explored through Li Lan’s trip to the afterlife. This wasn’t the best book I ever read, but it sure was interesting, and is worth a read if you are looking for something different.

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery – Robert Kolker

This was my non-fiction true crime for the quarter. Sometimes it read fast, sometimes it read slow, but the fact that things kept unfolding kept me going. This is the story of a Long Island serial killer/s who preyed on Craigslist escorts, culminating in multiple bodies being found in the hunt for a different missing escort. Kolker gets to know each of the girls’ families, and really humanizes them. Many people were critical of the police and some community members during the main investigation because they treated the girls as forgettable, prostitutes who got what was coming to them. Kolker reminds us that they were daughters, sisters, and mothers, most of them just trying to support their families. Add in a creepy, lurking suspect who gives his spin on the story, and this is a well rounded piece of journalism that goes deeper than just the gore and hysteria of the typical mass market true crime.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls – Anton Disclafani 

I didn’t like this book as much as I anticipated, given that I had read stellar reviews in multiple magazines and newspapers. Thea is shipped off to the titular camp by her parents after a mysterious incident occurs within her family. Growing up in the country, Yonahlossee is really her first taste of socialization, and she immediately makes friends with some of the other girls. As the story flashes back to her childhood and the events leading up to her familial expulsion, we see how her past may shape her future. Though Yonahlossee sounds delightful, both the dark shadow of the Great Depression and a secret romance one can see coming from a mile away really give it a serious bent. When you finally learn the family secret (which you can also see coming from a mile away, and it’s pretty cliche), the family awkwardness makes sense. This book was a little all over the place and didn’t live up to the hype. The only redeeming quality for me were the lush descriptions of Yonahlossee.

Hyperbole and a Half – Allie Brosh

This is part autobiography, part comic book, all hilarious. I kept hearing about this book and brushing it off, until my dear friend Katy described it as “just our sense of humor.” And it was. It’s an easy read (I finished it in one night), and I was laughing out loud pretty much the entire time. Brosh manages to make the topic of depression HILARIOUS, which is a hard task, and also really gets to the core of what it feels like, part of the reason I resonated so much with this book. Also, her stories about Simple Dog are hilarious, and I’m pretty sure Simple Dog is related to Ramsay. This vignette of stories and stick figures is short and sweet and definitely worth a read.

A Treacherous Paradise – Hanning Mankel

This took me a while to get through, but it was good. I think. Mankel, who wrote the Wallander series, explores different territory here. Hanna, at 19, is sent away from her impoverished household to make her own way, and ends up on a boat bound for employment in Australia. She falls in love with a sailor, who leaves her widowed before the ship makes its final port. Despondent and confused, Hanna jumps ship in Mozambique (Portuguese East Africa), where she ends up having a miscarriage in a bordello, owned by a fellow European expat. She ends up marrying the expat – again, she is widowed, and suddenly finds herself in charge of said bordello, staffed by native African women with whom she feels nothing in common. Racial themes are explored throughout, as Hanna wrestles with the injustices done by fellow whites and, at the same time, is ostracized by “her own people” based on what she does for a living. This book was good throughout, really thought provoking, but at the end, I didn’t know what to think. Have you read it? What were your thoughts?

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Marge’s Quarterly Book Reviews – Q3 2013 Edition

It’s again time for a round of book reviews. I have read a LOT the past few months (I finished three books last weekend, thanks to a cold that basically confined me to the couch), and these are the highlights (with one lowlight).

The Drowning House – Elizabeth Black

I don’t often finish books that I don’t like, but for some reason, I kept going on this one. I think I so WANTED it to get better. But it never did. In fact, if anything, it got worse. Clare, a photographer, is invited back to her hometown of Galveston, Texas, for a photography project by an old family friend (who also happens to be dating her mom. Can you say “drama waiting to happen?”). She hopes that this will give her an opportunity to grieve the accidental death of her daughter, and to reflect on her failing marriage. She then becomes obsessed with an old neighborhood legend involving the Carraday family, whom she befriended and spent time with as a child, slipping into a romance of sorts with one of the wealthy Carraday sons. The old legend tells the story of Stella Carraday, who drowned during a hurricane when her hair became entangled in a chandelier, hanging her. What really happened? Can Clare repair her relationship with her mother, her sister, pretty much everyone in town?

The book jacket made it sound like this would be a modern day take on a gothic mystery, but it wasn’t. It was a jumbled collection of half-assed plots, and before you know it, there’s arson, incest, and old grudges all thrown into the mix. Yes, I said incest. F**king weird. Though I was initially drawn to the cover, which looks identical to an artsy picture of a chandelier I once bought. this book was a warning about choosing books by their covers. I recommend you not waste your time.

The Last Runaway – Tracy Chevalier

I read a lot of bad-mediocre reviews of this book, but I really enjoyed it. Honor, an English Quaker, embarks on a journey to American with her sister, who is to be married to another Quaker in the midwest. When her sister doesn’t survive the journey, Honor is stuck in this new and growing America, where she knows no one and can’t reconcile her religious lifestyle with the more modern communities she encounters. She clings to the one thing that comforts her: quilting. When she is introduced to the Underground Railroad and told not to assist African Americans trying to escape slavery through its network, she sticks to her Quaker principles of equality and fights for what’s right. Though it’s kind of a cutesy story in parts, Honor’s struggles are real and her internal conflicts became mine. This was a fast read for me, and I recommend it as a piece of historical fiction that will teach you a thing or two about quilting, the Quaker way, and life in the early United States.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Anthony Marra

“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena – organization irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” This passage, buried within this complex story, is better than any summary I could write. Set in Chechnya during the time of informants and betrayal, Constellation weaves together the lives of a surgeon, a home grown doctor, and a little girl whose father has been taken during the night. This book is about the relationships and coincidences that draw us together, and the need to sometimes redefine the meaning of family. Sometimes I have a hard time describing the complex and this book is the perfect example. It’s a tough read, but worth it. If you are looking for something to make you think, this is the book you should read.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald – Therese Anne Fowler

I’d read mixed things about Z, but had to read it for myself. The Great Gatsby is a favorite of mine, and its author has always intrigued me. Told through his wife’s eyes, F. Scott Fitzgerald comes off as a horrible husband and father, whether he really was or not. Zelda is initially swept off her feet by “Fitz,” and soon becomes caught up in the life of the nouveau riche from New York City to Paris. She has to deal with Fitzgerald’s ups and downs and incessant self-comparison to every other writer he knows. She has to confront the the bullshit of the early 20th century bohemia where everyone seems consumed by the material, the facade of success, much like in Gatsby. Zelda struggles to find herself in this world, and finally decides that maybe she didn’t know what she was really looking for in life. I struggled to get into this read, but eventually plowed through it. I think it’s written well, and it gets better and better as Zelda starts to stand on her own.

Waiting to be Heard – Amanda Knox

I needed to get my true-crime fix, so when I saw Amanda Knox’s memoir on the shelf, I nabbed it. Just, for the record, I don’t believe that Amanda Knox murdered her study abroad roommate. The evidence sounds sketchy, and not JUST when the accused presents it. Hearing about things from Amanda’s point of view was interesting, especially the time she spent in prison before her appeal or retrial or whatever it is in the Italian court system. She struggled with depression and anxiety, but spent a lot of her time learning Italian and helping others learn English. She made friends. She discussed life with a friendly Italian priest. It’s horrible to read about her eagerness to explore Italy and expand her horizons, and then read about how her time abroad soured, turning millions against her, forcing her to defend herself in a strange place in a foreign language and only a rudimentary understanding of the legal hoops. I feel for her, I do. A memoir is definitely a hard genre to review, as the writing style is just…different, but I think Knox put a lot of thought and time into this, and it shows. I hope that others read her story and attempt to understand exactly what she went through.

Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin – Nicole Hardy

Anyone that grew up with a Christian religion will relate somewhat with this memoir, written by a sassy ex-Mormon. Raised in accordance with church teaching, Hardy committed at a young age to save herself until marriage. When all of her friends started to get married in college, and Hardy had hardly had any romantic relationships to speak of, the commitment started to get more difficult. Essentially, this is a story of how religious rules can sometimes lead to a distorted mindset. There is often so much talk about “saving yourself” that you begin to think sex, anything related to sex, or even finding yourself intrigued by sex, is unclean. Nicole struggles with her lack of desire for the typical Mormon life; she isn’t interested in having children, and she’s not the type to stay at home and make casseroles (not that kids and casseroles are all there is to being Mormon, of course). She breaks down, more than once, wondering “is this really what God wants for my life, for me to be miserable?” Everyone treats her single-ness with sympathy, making her feel like there is something wrong with her.

Slowly, Nicole learns how to accept her differences, and recognizes that the church seems unable to support her. She makes a tough decision that results in a hard conversation with her family, asking them to love her as she is. I can relate with her struggles to some extent, feeling guilty for thinking differently and feeling unsure of the plan for one’s life. Hardy’s prose is easy to relate with and her story poignant. I thought it would be a rough read for me, but it went pretty quickly, and ended up being a thoughtful delight.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaimon

I’ve been reading about this book ever since it first hit shelves, and it sounded intriguing. A lonely boy, a mysterious girl, and a dark force descending on a pastoral British neighborhood. I read this before I really looked at Gaimon’s list of other titles, and my first impression was “oh my word, this sounds like Coraline!” Little did I know, Gaimon also penned Coraline (a creepy YA book that I read in one sitting while crouching in a corner of Barnes and Noble). These two books manage to be similarly creepy and compelling. A man commits suicide in a stolen car. The next day, a nameless boy wakes up, choking on a coin. He befriends the strange but welcoming Lettie Hempstock, who lives by a pond which she calls an ocean, and learns that his neighborhood has become somewhat of a battleground between good and evil. The nameless boy is forced to confront his imagination and his fears in a battle that WILL take a life, but you’ll have to read it to find out whose. This book is short, exciting, and makes you ponder the end of childhood and the fears we carry.

The Silver Star – Jeannette Walls

Another quick read (that must have been the name of the game the past few months), this is the story of two sisters who are abandoned by their flaky, habitual liar of a mother. Forced to take themselves across the country to show up on the doorstep of a hermit uncle in Virginia, Bean and Liz make friends, learn some family history, and endear themselves to good old Uncle Tinsley. When Liz is harassed by the sisters’ boss, little sis Bean learns just how rough the adult world can be. The town bully (the accused harasser) is not about to be pushed around, and tries to strong-arm his way out of a legal situation, while poor Liz is ostracized by the community. Bean, Uncle Tinsley, and even the flaky mom come around her, and they all discover the true meaning of family. This was a good story, with a well developed and easily imaginable setting, and there’s a surprise ending that really brought the story around. This was another one I had read about in a variety of reviews, and it deserves praise.

Divergent – Veronica Roth

Divergent is being touted as “the next Hunger Games,” a series written for teens but appealing to all. A dystopian future. One girl willing to challenge the status quo. It sounds almost blasphemous, but I think I actually liked Divergent more than Hunger Games. In a society classified by five factions, Beatrice (who renames herself “Tris”) is told that she has to abandon her family and everything she was raised to believe in order to become her true self. Labeled as “divergent,” Tris learns that some people can never give up certain parts of themselves. When Tris starts to spend time with her faction trainer, Four, they discover a plot to overthrow their society, and they have to use their collective talents to save those they love.

I read this in two days, and it was a book that kept me up until the wee hours. The love story was compelling, the setting (a sort of post-apocalyptic Chicago) was well developed, and the story-line was quick moving and exciting. AND this is going to be a movie next spring. I’m totally fandom-ing on Divergent, and I plan on reading the next book ASAP.

Disclaimer – The next few reviews are for the dirty romance novels I read from time to time. Some I chose on my own, some are recommended to me. This is guilty pleasure reading, and there is LOTS of sex. So if that bothers you, I would skip these reviews. If it doesn’t, read on, friend!

Reflected in You (Crossfire #2) – Sylvia Day

So I reviewed the first of the Crossfire series last time around, giving it a pretty positive rating. When I saw the second installment sitting innocently on the shelf at the library, I pounced on it, eager for more of Gideon and Eva and their passionate, less-hokey-than-50-Shades romance. Though both of the characters still had their “moments,” ie. breakup scares and moody silence every 10-15 pages, Reflected in You didn’t disappoint. The sex was still hot, Gideon was still hella rich and manly, there were still crazy hi-jinks every once in a while (who saw the brawl with the musician coming, I mean REALLY). I will be reading books #3-4 as guilty pleasure reading this fall/winter, mark my words.

Aftermath – Cara Dee

Austin and Cam both survived a five-month kidnapping and torture ordeal, and were able to escape and go back to their regular lives. It only makes sense that they share a special connection afterwards, right? Austin and Cam struggle to regain control of their lives, with Austin’s wife expecting him to be unchanged after his ordeal and Cam tormented by nightmares and anxiety. The men spend more and more time together, and then realize that maybe they have become MORE than friends. Is Austin ready to leave his seemingly picture perfect life for a relationship with another man? I read this in about a day and a half. There was LOTS of passion, and the love story was deep and well-formed. The relationship seems genuine and natural. Cam’s anxiety is developed and realistic. If you can handle a lot of gay sex scenes (and I’m not kidding, I mean a LOT), this book is worth it as a hot romance read.

Shattered Glass – Dani Alexander

I’m just going to start by saying that this is NOT as good as Aftermath, in my opinion, but it is, in parts, hilarious. Another leading man named Austin, police detective Austin Glass is intent on ruining a human trafficking operation in Denver. Then he sees Peter working at a diner, and all of a sudden realizes he’s gay and can’t stop thinking about male genitalia and sex. And that’s the first chapter. He fights homosexuality for a while, but eventually cops to the fact that he’s never really been crazy about women. In the meantime, Denver is being overrun by previously mentioned human trafficking, which is entwined with Mexican drug lords, who are working with Russian mob runaways (is Peter really Peter?). The back-story is clearly only there to take up pages. I never really did understand it, to be completely honest. The reason to read this book is that Austin is HILARIOUS. I think Dani Alexander and I must have a similar sense of humor. Austin is constantly telling crass jokes and being awkward, and it makes the book worthwhile. The love story, while not seeming forced, doesn’t always work, but it’s not bad. So basically, this is a cute and hilariously funny gay love story with some dark undertones and a whacked out background plot. But worth a read.

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Delightful Reads, 2nd Quarter 2013

Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church – Lauren Drain

If you’ve read any of my other book reviews, you know that I’m obsessed with learning about different religions. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Westboro Baptist Church, they are those complete psychos that picket military funerals and a variety of other, seemingly more random events (my college graduation, for instance) with their insane agenda about God hating America and everyone is going to die and burn in hell because people are gay, etc. etc. etc. Basically they are insane (I watched a documentary about them not too long ago). Lauren Drain’s family joined the church when she was a young girl, and she spent some of her formative groups being brainwashed by these sorts of radical beliefs. I actually had to struggle to finish this book; while the topic was interesting, the book was poorly written, and I was continually confused by flash backs and fragmented stories. I didn’t come away knowing much more about Westboro than I did when I set out. It was still somewhat interesting, since (to my knowledge anyways) this is the first book that a former member has written. But I don’t feel like it gave enough insight into how the church continues to function in the 21st century.

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap – Wendy Welch

How can I NOT love a book about a little independent bookstore trying to make its way in a rural community? Two things you should know about me – I love bookstores (I was raised on Powell’s), and I have a weird fascination with Appalachia. This memoir is about a bookstore in Appalachia. An “outsider” couple moves to Big Stone Gap and creates a used bookstore in the first floor of their home, which grows and develops into something of a community center. Tales of the Lonesome Pine, and it’s owners, Jack and Wendy, brings something fresh to Big Stone Gap: an outside perspective and a place to commune with people of varying beliefs over the mutual love of stories. I hope I can visit this treasure someday!

People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman – Richard Lloyd Parry

I’m currently on a bit of a true crime writing phase, after randomly picking this up at the library one day. People who Eat Darkness goes inside the shady world of the Japanese club scene. Lucie, a British girl looking for adventure with a friend, moves to Japan to work with a friend as a club hostess, getting paid to talk to lonely men. It’s one of these lonely men who ends up kidnapping, raping, and murdering Lucie. Parry, a British journalist working out of Japan at the time that this occurred, can’t shake this case from his mind. He methodically pours over the evidence, while delving into Lucie’s background and the organization of the Japanese police system. This is a sad story, but for some reason, it really sucked me in.

Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain – Portia de Rossi

I never expect celebrity auto-biographies to be particularly good. Perhaps this is unfortunately judgmental of me, but I just don’t set my expectations very high. I was very surprised by how natural Portia’s storytelling abilities were. She’s a beautiful person with a beautiful story to tell. Unbearable Lightness covers basically her entire life, from a young girl in Australia who begged her mother to let her become a model, to meeting her now wife, Ellen de Generes (who encouraged her to write her story). Portia struggled for years with body image and disordered eating, and she really is able to convey the thoughts of someone who truly struggles with confidence. It’s painful to read, but beautiful to finally see her experience a personal epiphany that ends up changing her life for the better. I definitely recommend this as a quick and powerful read.

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape – Jenna Miscavige Hill

This was a MUCH better religion read than Banished (see above). Scientology has always fascinated me. Once I learned some of the foundational beliefs of the faith, I’ve wondered how people continue to believe in the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard. Jenna was a member of a very prominent Scientologist family (her uncle was Tom Cruise’s best man at his wedding to Katie Holmes, just saying), and she was raised by parents who were members of the strict Sea Org, whose members sign a “billion year contract,” committing their lives to the Scientology cause. She spent a lot of her childhood basically parentless, raised by neighbors or other, slightly older kids. She attended a Scientology boarding school, which was more labor camp than educational environment. As Jenna comes of age, she begins to question what she’s been taught. This memoir contains LOTS of information about just how far Scientology will go to get and retain members, and the psychological hold they manage to have on them.

The Dog Stars – Peter Heller

This book was described somewhere as a “more-lighthearted version of The Road.” I LOVED The Road, but it gave me nightmares (thus I have refused to see the movie, despite my love of Viggo Mortenson). I don’t know that I would call The Dog Stars “lighthearted,” per se, but it WAS a really beautiful and thoughtful read.  Post-apocalyptic world. Two men and a dog living alone at an abandoned airport, surviving roaming hoards of bandits, not knowing what the future holds. Hig hears other human voices on his airplane radio as he flies recon missions around their base camp. He sets out to see if life is going on outside their little conclave. He finds a father and daughter (cue romantic music) living at an idyllic little farm. What does the future hold for them now? I laughed. I cried. I reflected. This book was 100% worth my time.

The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer

So I cheated a bit – I read this book in July. But I’m reviewing it now because you shouldn’t wait until Q3 to read it. I have never come across a book that so thoroughly tackles a variety of big (and I mean BIG) issues. The book starts at a summer arts camp in the 1970s. Jules is in attendance thanks to a scholarship, and meets an eclectic group of richer, more “glamorous” friends (for lack of a better word). Everything seems exotic to her, a somewhat ordinary girl from a somewhat ordinary suburb. The Interestings follows the coming of age of Jules and her friends from Spirit-in-the-Woods summer camp, as they deal with drugs, rape, death, cancer, marriage, parenthood, economic disparity, sexual identity crises, AIDS, infidelity, and a handful of other stressful issues. The Interestings was beautifully written, and once I got into it, I couldn’t pull myself away. There were twists. There were turns. Frequently I wanted to slap Jules in the face. But she finally manages to come into her own. Read. This. Now.

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Delightful Reads, 1st Quarter 2013

Since I work in the finance world, my year is divided into quarters. Since I found it hard to review a YEAR’S worth of books at once, I figured that I would try it in smaller, quarterly chunks. Plus, I have read a ton the last few months. Here are some of the highlights:

The Snowman – Jo Nesbo

It’s been a while since I’ve read any dark murder mysteries, but my dad raved about this book after I gave it to him for Christmas, and when my dad raves about ANYTHING, it’s worth checking out. Part of a Norwegian mystery series (ala Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but a different Scandinavian country), the Harry Hole mysteries by Nesbo can really be read out of order, which is good because this was #5 out of 7 or something like that. Hole and a ragtag bunch of crime squad employees race against the clock to find a murderer who leaves mysterious snowmen at every crime scene he creates. Harry is a lovable curmudgeon of a detective, whose unorthodox methods make the suits uncomfortable but always lead to results, in the end. If you aren’t faint of heart and are looking for a good series, I recommend this for sure. It’s gruesome, but the detail with which Nesbo sets the crime scenes is amazing, and Harry’s inner turmoil is addicting.

The Third Wheel (Diary of a Wimpy Kid #7) – Jeff Kinney

Since my hubby teaches youngsters, we always try to keep up with the latest and greatest in children’s literature. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is HILARIOUS, one of those books written as much for adults as for kids. This book doesn’t compare to the first one in the series, but I guarantee a few belly laughs as you read about Greg Hefley attempting to navigate through the perils of middle school without being embarrassed by his parents or his quirkily adorable bestie, Rowley. This book  focuses on finding a date to the big school dance, always a stressful time in middle school. Since this book is written for the tween set, I finished it in one sitting. SO. FUNNY.

The Night Strangers – Chris Bohjalian

This is another selection from my “psychological thriller” phase I went through in January. Chip Linton is a pilot who is trying to forget the failed crash landed he attempted in order to save the passengers on his commuter flight. 39 people died that day, and a few of them have decided to haunt Chip’s life, talking to him, appearing soaking wet with their injuries, asking him for something I can’t understand. Trying to start fresh, Chip and his family move to a small, creepy town full of earthy “herbalists,” (don’t call them witches) who take a freakish interest in his twin daughters. Weird things are afoot in the strange old house the Lintons bought, and Chip becomes increasingly withdrawn and borderline psychotic. When the dead figures start asking for company in the afterlife, Chip gets downright creepy. I had to stay up and finish this at 1 AM on a work night because I had to know what happened.

The Sixes – Kate White

I still have unresolved feelings about whether or not I enjoyed this book. It was a wannabe psychological thriller mixed with a wannabe steamy romance mixed with a wannabe chick lit read. Phoebe, a gossip author who was falsely accused of plagiarism, tries to start over by taking an adjunct teaching position at a college run by one of her best friends. She starts to settle into small town life, finds a hot man to occasionally shack up with, and everything seems hunky-dory. Then, a female student is found dead, and a secret society that may or may not exist comes back into question. Phoebe’s friend, Dean Glenda, asks her to dig into the secret society, the Sixes, who then start to target Phoebe. She grows increasingly paranoid, strange things start appearing in her house, another few people end up dead, and Phoebe’s sordid past at a private boarding school are all brought to light. This book was predictable as all get out, but I still finished it, hoping it would turn out as good as The Year of the Gadfly. It didn’t.

The Hypnotist’s Love Story – Liane Moriarty

This was a really good read. Ellen, a hypnotist typically unlucky in love, seemingly hits the jackpot when she meets a widower online that appears to be perfect. They fall for each other, fast, and then he drops the bomb: he’s being stalked by an ex-girlfriend. Ellen becomes fascinated by this while, unbeknownst to her, said stalker is seeing Ellen under a false identity in order to keep tabs on her stalkee. Saskia, the stalker, gets increasingly unhinged until a frightening event brings everything to a head. What’s especially interesting is the interplay between Ellen’s point of view and that of Saskia. Often, the same events are described by two different people with two different perspectives. Saskia usually doesn’t see what’s wrong with the things she does, and the reader gets to see her “stalker-logic” for her actions. This was 75% cute love story, 25% psychological thriller, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

The Dressmaker – Kate Alcott

I went through a big Titanic phase back when Jack and Rose first hit the silver screen. I read every book I could find about the Titanic, fiction and non, and could quote passenger counts, building specs, biographies of notable passengers, you name it. So I had to pick up this book, about a young girl named Tess who gets a last minute job as a servant for Lady Duff Gordon, her idol in the fashion world, who just happens to be boarding the ill-fated ship. On board, Tess begins to see the ugly truth of classism, as servants are treating like nuisances while the rich are wined and dined every day. Lady Duff Gordon takes a liking to Tess and begins to “mentor” her as a young design star. Then, the ship sinks. Tess and Lady Duff Gordon both survive to get to New York and start work on an important fashion show, even as the Gordons are brought into a lifeboat scandal. Tess struggles between what she knows is right and the future she dreams of as a dressmaker, while balancing her feelings for two different men that she met on board. This book was…ok. Interesting story, but I tired of Tess after a while. I did, however, get some detail on a Titanic tale I hadn’t heard much about. This was worth the read, but after the characters reached New York, I had to struggle to finish it.

Bared to You (Crossfire #1) – Sylvia Day

You pretty much have to compare Bared to You with Fifty Shades of Grey, if you’ve read both of them. To sum up the comparisons, this book is MUCH dirtier (in my opinion), has somewhat of a plot, and the main female character doesn’t make me want to beat my head against the wall with asinine internal monologues. This was a steamy guilty pleasure read, and I will be reading the subsequent books, even though I’m embarrassed to admit it. The plot, though more developed than Fifty Shades, is basically the same: young career woman has awkward introduction to an incredibly rich and eligible bachelor who then tries to sleep with her as much as possible for the next two-hundred pages. Though the story-line may be formulaic at this point, this one is worth the read. I mean, if you’re into that sort of book.

 

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My 2012 in Books

So last year, one of my friends reviewed all of the books she read in the prior year, and tagged all of her heavy-reading friends, so that we would maybe have some new ideas of books to add to our reading lists. I thought this idea was genius, and had been planning on doing it for 2012. Not EVERY book, because when I really get going I read about two books a week, but my favorites.  Thank GOD I started using Goodreads. Here are some highlights:

1. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

Hands down, this was the BEST book I read in 2012. I absolutely devoured it. I confess, I stalk the Bestseller cart at the local library like a vulture, and I waited and waited for this to appear, as I’d read great reviews in a variety of magazines and newspapers. Finally, my dreams came true. We often hear movies like The Matrix and Unbreakable described as “mindfuck” movies. Well, this is a mindfuck book. That’s the only way to describe it. A psychological thriller focused on a marriage that’s not what it seems. A husband comes home to find his wife  gone on their anniversary, their living room turned over. The book goes back and forth between Amy, the disappeared wife, journaling the timeline of her marriage to Nick, and Nick’s thought processes post-disappearance. Twists, turns, shocking revelations…this book has it all. READ IT. IT’S PHENOMENAL.

2. Wildwood – Colin Meloy

When the lead singer of my favorite band write a book, I read it. Simple as that. And I’m glad I read Wildwood. First of all, every location is based on somewhere in Portland, so it’s all familiar, and it has a twist of The Decemberists quirkiness. If you don’t know, I’m OBSESSED with fairy tales, and this is a modern day fairy tale for all ages. The gist of the story is that Prue’s baby brother is kidnapped by birds and taken into the Impassable Wilderness (also known as Forest Park, to any Oregonians out there). Adventure ensues, as Prue and one of her friends journey to the “IW” and encounter a variety of talking animals, bandits, and woodsy magic. The illustrations are delightful, the story is equally engaging for children AND adults (anyone who knows The Decemberists knows that their storytelling vocabulary is quite advanced). This is the first book of a trilogy, and I’m anxious to read the second book, “Under Wildwood,” which has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few months.

3. The Year of the Gadfly – Jennifer Miller

I love anything that relates to cults or secret societies. I also watched Dead Poet’s Society about a week before I read this book. In The Year of the Gadfly, Iris is forced to move to a sleepy town and attend the mysterious Mariana Academy, rich with history and dark secrets. Iris, who is dealing with a personal tragedy, finds solace in talking to Edward R Murrow, who encourages her to ask questions and root around for answers – who is Prisom’s Party, the secret society that orchestrates an underground student newspaper revealing “secrets” of teachers and students, and throws sociological flash mobs to show the students just how malleable they can be? What happened to bring the science teacher, Mr. Kaplan, back to his alma mater after so many years? As Iris gets pulled further and further into the darkness of Mariana’s secrets, I was drawn into a story that is at once a statement on modern youth and a compelling coming-of-age story. Another quick read for me.

4. Drop Dead Healthy – AJ Jacobs

I always have a hard time answering the question “What sort of books do you like to read?” I’ve started answering by saying “I love books where people do something for a year,” which pretty much sums up AJ Jacobs. In Drop Dead Healthy, AJ tries to become the healthiest person on earth by trying every health fad, minute research discovery, hot fitness class, etc., for about two years. His books are laugh-out-loud funny, as his family tries to cope with some of his zanier experiments. Since I’ve been on a health kick of my own, this book was especially interesting. Not as quick of a read as I anticipated, but engaging, humorous, and definitely an eye-opener. AJ attempted to change his own life for the sake of his Children, and succeeded.

5. The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

Celia and Marco are two trainee magicians, locked in a battle they don’t understand, bound to this fate by their respective guardians. Their dangerous game plays out in a beautiful and mysterious travelling circus, The Circus of Dreams, that appears overnight and offers patrons unique and mesmerizing attractions. Marco and Celia are each integral to the circus, and as they become closer to one another, the lines of their mysterious game begin to blur. The language of this book is beautiful; every little detail described comes to life between the pages. A very quick read for me, AND I just learned that movie rights have been purchased. If the film comes close to the beauty of the writing, we’re in for a treat.

6. The Flight of Gemma Hardy – Margot Livesey

This book is an updated (and easier to read) version of Jane Eyre that follows Gemma, who is orphaned and abandoned by her surviving family after the death of her beloved uncle, first to a harsh English boarding school, then to a forlorn island manor to serve as a nanny for the wild niece of a rich banker. Gemma seems to have a knack for working with the wild child, which impresses Mr. Sinclair, who then begins to court Gemma, who learns Mr. Sinclair’s big secret and runs away. Does Mr. Sinclair care enough to come after her? Will Gemma be able to start over yet again, in a new town full of strangers, with no money and no friends? There are lots of negative reviews of this book and it’s Jane Eyre plot line, but I loved it. Maybe it’s because I’m married to an older man, but I find the love between Gemma and Mr. Sinclair endearing. I thought this was worth a read, for sure.

7. The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenidies

I’d been reading a lot of “fluff” books when I picked up The Marriage Plot, and it was an intelligent, thoughtful, and somewhat depressing breath of fresh air. A kind-of love story that starts off with students at Brown University in the 80s, Eugenidies paints a brilliant picture of that naive and optimistic sense of college intellectualism I remember so well from the not-too-distant past. Madeline and Leonard begin a tortured and dramatic relationship, Mitchell looks on while searching for religious meaning in his life and pining for Madeline. As the three hurtle towards graduation and beyond, Leonard’s struggles with mental illness create a heavy strain on everyone, as Madeline tries to play both concerned caretaker and supportive lover. This book was heavy, really heavy at times, but also really good.

8. The Prisoner of Heaven – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Before you read this, read the first two books, The Shadow of the Wind, and Angel’s Game. Then read The Prisoner of Heaven. Then eagerly await the fourth book that Ruiz Zafon alluded to when I met him at a Powell’s talk in July. The translation from Spanish to English is beautiful, not at all jolty and jarring, and sucks you into the story of the Cemetary of Forgotten Books, a mysterious place in Barcelona that proves to be forever connected to the Sempere family. As in Ruiz Zafon’s other books, a mysterious figure appears, makes promises and threats, and it’s up to Daniel Sempere to figure out who they are and what they really want. The story of The Count of Monte Cristo is heavily featured, as we learn more about the Sempere family friend, Fermin Romero de Torres, and his sordid past. The Cemetary of Forgotten Books novels are my favorite books, hands down, and I gushed this to the author himself after standing in line for an hour waiting to get my copies signed. Read them in order, but READ THEM.

9. The Hunger Games series – Suzanne Collins

I put off reading this for a long time, but when I finally got around to it, I wondered what the hell I was thinking. If you haven’t read these or seen the first movie, you’ve been living under a rock. A messed up story about a society where children are forced to fight to the death to guarantee safety and security for their families, and the story of a girl, Katniss, who steps up to protect her sister and ends up championing a revolution. The characters in this trilogy are complex and engaging, and the psychological suspense is intense. Read. These. Now.

10. The 50 Shades trilogy – E.L. James

I debated whether or not to include these on my list, but ultimately decided that I couldn’t talk about my 2012 in books without them. Now, I’m not AT ALL claiming that these are outstanding works of literature, because that’s simply not true. In my opinion, the writing sucks. But for whatever reason, these damn books sucked me in. I read the second and third books in about 24 hours a piece. Despite hating Ana as a lead female character, something about Christian is just so likable.  Also, since the book mainly takes place between Portland and Seattle, I’m familiar with about every place they go. And let’s be real, some of the scenes are pretty hot. 50 Shades was a HUGE thing in 2012, and I jumped on the bandwagon for a while. I’m not (too) ashamed.

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I’m realizing that this list is all over the place, and that I should probably start summarizing the books I read AS I read them, instead of relying on my memory at the end of the year (good thing my mom got me that book journal for my birthday). I apologize that my book review skills have gone downhill since high school. It’s so different to read just for fun, after reading for academics for 16 years of my life. I love being able to read what I want, when I want. Now excuse me, I need to go get cracking on my 2013 reading list!

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