Showing posts with label 2013 keyword challenge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2013 keyword challenge. Show all posts

Friday, December 13, 2013

2013 Challenges Wrap-Up

Oh, my 2013 reading challenges.  I knew from the start that I was taking on too much, but did I let that stop me?  No, of course not!

As a reminder, I took on five different challenges this year.  Some were completed...and some were epic fails.  Let's review!

1. Around The World in 12 Books Challenge: 58-67% completed
This book challenged me to read 1 book/month from a different country around the world.  This is COMPLETELY up my alley, and I was super excited for the push to read more internationally-set literature.  I did great with this challenge until we moved in August.  At that point, I got so busy that I was pretty much just reading what I had on hand, most of which was not set in the countries posed in this challenge.

Thus, sadly, I only completed 7 out of the 12 countries on the list.  HOWEVER, I did just pick up John Updike's Brazil, in hopes of being able to check off one more (plus I noticed on my 2013 Reading Map (see below) that South America was severely lacking--so I figured if I was going to add in one more country, it should be from there).  Hopefully I can finish it before the end of the month, bringing me up to 8 out of 12!
My 2013 reading map...shows all of the locations/settings of the novels I've read this year!  Sorry to Australia and South America.  lol.
2. Monthly Keyword Challenge: 100% completed!

This challenge was a lot of fun, and pretty easy to complete, given the flexibility of the rules.  Each month had a list of several words you could choose from, and you had to read a book that contained one of those keywords in the title.  Part of what made this easier for me is that the rules said it was OK to read the books in a different month than when the word was posted...so for example, the book I used for the June keyword was actually read in May.  As a result, I was able to wrap this one up in November.  Woohoo!

3. Mount TBR Challenge: 12.5% completed (ugh)

Oy vey, I did poorly here.  My goal was to read at least 24 books from my at-home TBR pile, and I was trying to only count paper books (not Kindle books), in an effort to clear my shelves a little bit.  I only managed THREE.  I blame this on two things: tons of ARCs (which are so hard for me to resist!) and the rest of these challenges (which often required me to use the library in order to find a book that fit a specific challenge).  Next year I am definitely cutting back on ARCs (and challenges!), so I'm hoping to try this one again.

4. Foodies Read Challenge: 100% completed!

I have no problem reading food books 'til the cows come home.  I finished this one mid-year and still read more of them before the end of the year...easy peasy!

5. Audiobook Challenge: 100% completed!

I am thankful that I finished this one just before we moved.  I used my commutes to/from work to listen to audiobooks all the time, so this was easy to finish by mid-year...but nowadays, I am hardly ever in the car, so I would have found it impossible to complete after I quit my job!  Definitely not one I will be able to do in 2014.

So there you have it: 3 challenges completed, 1 about halfway completed, and 1 miserable fail.  Not so bad, I suppose!  I'm pretty sure that my only challenge for next year will be Mount TBR, but we shall see.

How did your 2013 reading challenges go?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok


Title: The Memory Palace
Author: Mira Bartok
Publisher: Free Press
Publication Date: January 11, 2011
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads:

When piano prodigy Norma Herr was healthy, she was the most vibrant personality in the room. But as her schizophrenic episodes became more frequent and more dangerous, she withdrew into a world that neither of her daughters could make any sense of. After Norma attacked her, Mira Bartók and her sister changed their names and cut off all contact in order to keep themselves safe. For the next seventeen years Mira’s only contact with her mother was through infrequent letters exchanged through post office boxes, often not even in the same city where she was living.

At the age of forty, Mira suffered a debilitating head injury that left her memories foggy and her ability to make sense of the world around her forever changed. Hoping to reconnect with her past, Mira learned Norma was dying in a hospital, and she and her sister traveled to their mother’s deathbed to reconcile one last time.

Through stunning prose and gorgeous original art, The Memory Palace explores the connections between mother and daughter that cannot be broken no matter how much exists—or is lost—between them.


My Review:

Phew, what a memoir.  The Memory Palace is, at various points, sad, frightening, hopeful, and frustrating.  But mostly sad.  I was sad for the lack of support that Mira and her sister Natalia received over the years, both from their other family members and from social services.  I was sad for their mother, who Mira and Natalia loved deeply, but because she was unable to receive adequate help, they were forced to abandon her for their own well-being.  And most broadly, I was sad that Mira and Natalia had to live their entire lives under this shadow--because even when they separated themselves completely from their mother, they were still left with horrible memories and a suspicion of others' good will.

This memoir speaks strongly about the lack of social supports for the mentally ill in America.  Mira and Natalia tried countless times to get social services involved with their mother, or to appoint her a legal guardian who could take over her financial affairs--and in the end, the vast majority of their attempts failed, resulting in their mother's homelessness and declining physical health.  Also, I couldn't believe that Mira and Natalia were never taken from their mother's custody as children.  Mira does say that they never wanted that, but from an outsider perspective, it was heart-wrenching to see the fear they lived in throughout their childhoods because of their mother's illness.  It makes you wonder how many other families in this country face these obstacles with mentally ill spouses, children, siblings, etc. each day.

Well, I've made it fairly obvious that this memoir leaves a big emotional impact.  But I also have to comment on the writing style a bit.  I'll admit that, in the beginning, I almost DNF'd this one.  The first part of the book, when Mira is recounting her early childhood, took a long time to catch my interest.  I think because her memories of this time were so fuzzy (being early in life), she writes about them with a lot of symbolic references to artwork, music, etc and after a while, those references just became too abstract and flowy for me.  I wanted to know about her life...I didn't need all of the artistic imagery in its place.

However, as Mira moves into her adolescence and adulthood, she leaves a lot of these fluid images behind, and starts telling her story in a more concrete way.  (She does still rely on a lot of artistic images for embellishment--she is an artist, after all--but when paired with the more solid facts of her life, they take on  more relevance, in my opinion.)  By the time she was recounting her teenage years, I was enveloped in the memoir and found myself captivated by her life story.  In spite of the difficult time she has with her mother, Mira has led a truly amazing life, and the journey she goes on around the world is not one you'll soon forget.

Looking for a light read?  I think you need to find another book on my blog, perhaps.  The Memory Palace is sure to weigh heavily on your mind for a while after reading, but the message it sends about the treatment of the mentally ill makes it well worth your time.

Readers: read any other powerful memoirs lately?  Especially in regards to mental illness?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Book Review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin


Title: Please Look After Mom
Author: Kyung-Sook Shin
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: April 5, 2011 (first US edition--originally published 2008)
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

A million-plus-copy best seller in Korea—a magnificent English-language debut poised to become an international sensation—this is the stunning, deeply moving story of a family’s search for their mother, who goes missing one afternoon amid the crowds of the Seoul Station subway.

Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.

You will never think of your mother the same way again after you read this book.


My Review:

This month's country for the Around the World challenge is South Korea, and Please Look After Mom captured my interest for a few reasons.  One, it's a modern-day novel set in that country--something I was having trouble finding (most of the fiction novels set in South Korea were more historical in nature).  Two, it's a family drama, which is right up my alley.  Shin's novel was huge overseas before it landed in the US two years ago, so I figured this was a great choice for this month's challenge.

Overall, I had mixed feelings about this one.  In the end, I was left with that "meh" sensation that means I will probably forget about the book's details pretty quickly after reading.  It wasn't unenjoyable, per se...but I felt like it centered on an event that could have easily hooked a reader through the entire novel, but didn't.  Instead, Shin takes a more subtle and spiritual approach to the subject, and it left me shrugging my shoulders at the end.

The best thing about this book is the multiple-perspective narration.  The novel begins in the second-person POV of Chi-hon, oldest daughter of the family.  She introduces us to the sudden disappearance of her mother, and her (and her family's) immediate reaction to the crisis.  The next part of the novel is told in the third-person by Hyong-chol, oldest son of the family.  Then we get the second-person perspective of their father, and finally (before the epilogue) we get the first-person POV of the mother herself.  So, not only are you getting the narration of different family members in the situation, but the mode of perspective (first, second, third person) changes drastically as well.  I'm not sure I've ever read another novel that attempts to do this.  It was a little disorienting at first, but it works.  Each POV is so unique in how it approaches both the disappearance and the family's history, that by the end you get a very rich illustration of the complexities behind this family's dynamic.  Shin took a big risk here, but it paid off.

Obviously, that isn't where the book lost me.  I think there were two reasons why I felt underwhelmed by the end.  First, as I mentioned before, the last third of the novel relied so heavily on subtlety and spirituality that I became disinterested.  The section told from the mother's POV is disorienting and leaves a lot open to interpretation--too much, maybe.  In the end, I was left feeling that the novel came to no real conclusion.

The second issue was that, despite the variety of perspectives, I started to feel like the information being conveyed was repetitive.  As a reader, you are meant to see that once Mom disappears, the family brings to light all the regrets of how they treated her--and they also realize that they didn't fully know her as well as they thought they did.  However, when these themes are repeated over and over in each section, it starts to get a bit tedious, and leans more towards feeling morose rather than emotionally moving.

Final verdict?  I loved what Shin did here with perspective, but in the end I was left feeling like there was no real conclusion.  Not to mention that the tone for the entire novel is pretty much a downer.  Overall, not my fave.  I needed more solidity...and maybe just a tiny glimmer of happiness in the end.

Have you read any novels lately that were real downers?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Two Challenges DOWN!

I am pretty proud of myself, reader friends.  Remember all those crazy challenges I signed up for this year?  Of the five, I've already finished TWO!  And it's not even the halfway point of the year.  PATS ON THE BACK, YO.

The two that I finished are:

Audiobook Challenge (hosted by Teresa's Reading Corner)

I signed up to listen to at least 6 audiobooks and finished it when I completed The Round House last week.  I considered upping it to the next level (12 audiobooks), but I am going to lose my work commute in August when we move, so chances are I wouldn't make it.  However, I do hope to squeeze in another 1-2 before then.

Foodies Read Challenge (hosted by Foodies Read)

This wasn't tough, since I love food books so much!  I signed up for Pastry Chef level (4-8 food books) and hit #4 when I finished Pollan's Cooked last week.  I may throw in a few more throughout the year, but probably not enough to get above 8, so I'd say I'm done at this point.

As for my other three challenges...two are going great.  They are both monthly challenges (with a different category to fill each month) so I can't finish them until December, but so far I am right on track with both.  That's the Keyword Challenge and the Around The World in 12 Books Challenge.  As for the fifth one...let's just say the TBR Challenge is going to be a total wash.  I signed up to read 24 books from my TBR pile at home and so far I've read...1.  LAAAAAAAAAAAAME.  But there are just too many good library books and ARCs right now!!  Maybe next year...

Did you sign up for any 2013 challenges?  How are they going so far?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Audiobook Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich


Title: The Round House
Author: Louise Erdrich
Publisher: Harper Audio
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

In the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe sets out to get some answers of his own. The quest takes him first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning. Louise Erdrich's novel embraces tragedy, the comic, a spirit world very much present in the lives of her all-too human characters, and a tale of injustice that is, unfortunately, an authentic reflection of what happens in our own world today.

My Review:

If you pay attention to the world of "very important book awards", you know that The Round House was the winner of the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction.  That's a big deal, y'all.  As soon as I heard that Erdrich's novel had won, I knew I had to read it.  I adored one of the other finalists (This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz) so if a novel was beating that in competition?  My interest was piqued.

The beginning of the book definitely drew me in.  Joe's peaceful life on the reservation is rocked very suddenly when his mother arrives home late one Sunday, severely beaten and bloodied.  She is mute as to what happened, and Joe and his father are immediately compelled to find out who did this to her.  If that's not enough to throw you into a good mystery, I don't know what is.  Erdrich unveils this tragic occurrence while also carefully detailing the ways of life on the Ojibwe reservation, something that I knew very little about.  This combination of gruesome, mysterious attack and compelling detail makes for a great intro.

However, I can't say I loved the rest of the novel.  The pace slows down (a lot), and the identity of Geraldine's attacker becomes clear very early on.  This isn't a case of an author mishandling a mystery--no, it becomes obvious that the identity of the attacker is not the point of this story.  Instead, the novel attempts to expound more upon the struggles of Native American life on a reservation, their historical and familial roots, different laws and struggles they face vs. non-reservation residents, etc.  I'm not saying that's a bad thing.  If you go into the novel expecting and wanting this, you'll probably love it.  However, based on the description (and the hype), I was expecting a plot that moved faster and had more elements that would surprise me along the way.  That?  I didn't get.  But I did get an artistically written picture of injustice and Native American life, which wasn't a totally unwelcome alternative.

It's so hard to review a National Book Award winner.  How can you say anything bad about a book that the Literary Elite has deemed Amazing?  But I wouldn't call this bad--that's kind of a strong word.  I think I went into it with the wrong expectations.  This isn't a book that focuses on one particular character or event.  It's much larger in scope, and written with the words "cultural epic" in mind.  I think it just wasn't totally for me, given the direction and tone that it eventually took.

As for the audio version--I was at first unsure of the narrator, Gary Farmer, who has a very measured (and occasionally monotone) voice.  However, I quickly grew to enjoy his narration, because it's entirely fitting of the tone of the novel.  The only downside to the audio is that some parts of the novel don't seem to lend themselves well to that format.  There are long sections of Native American folklore that felt rather boring and tangential when listened to.  I probably would have gotten more from them if I was reading in print.  But otherwise, a very good narrator, fitting for the story at hand.

Have you ever felt lukewarm about a critically acclaimed novel?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Book Review: I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag by Jennifer Gilbert



Title: I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag
Author: Jennifer Gilbert
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: May 15, 2012
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

When Jennifer Gilbert was just a year out of college, a twenty-two-year-old fresh-faced young woman looking forward to a bright future, someone tried to cut her life short in the most violent way. But she survived, and not wanting this traumatic event to define her life, she buried it deep within and never spoke of it again.

She bravely launched a fabulous career in New York as an event planner, designing lavish parties and fairy-tale weddings. Determined to help others celebrate and enjoy life's greatest moments, she was convinced she'd never again feel joy herself. Yet it was these weddings, anniversaries, and holiday parties, showered with all her love and attention through those silent, scary years, that slowly brought her back to life.

Always the calm in the event-planning storm--she could fix a ripped wedding dress, solve the problem of an undelivered wedding cake in the nick of time, and move a party with two days' notice when disaster struck--there was no crisis that she couldn't turn into a professional triumph. Somewhere along the way, she felt a stirring in her heart and began yearning for more than just standing on the sidelines living vicariously through other people's lives. She fell in love, had her heart broken a few times, and then one day she found true love in a place so surprising that it literally knocked her out of her chair.

As Gilbert learned over and over again, no one's entitled to an easy road, and some people's roads are bumpier than others. But survive each twist and turn she does--sometimes with tears, sometimes with laughter, and often with both.

Warm, wise, alternately painful and funny, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag is an inspiring memoir of survival, renewal, and transformation. It's a tale about learning to let go and be happy after years of faking it, proving that while we can't always control what happens to us, we can control who we become. And instead of anticipating our present in a goodie bag at the end of an event, we realize our presence at every event is the real gift.


My Review:

I've read several good memoirs lately, and they have reminded me that their authors have a daunting job.  How do you tell your life story honestly, and keep it intriguing, while also maintaining a tone that doesn't smack of self-aggrandizement?  Balancing those three factors is no easy feat, because you can lose your reader quickly if any of them are off-kilter (especially that last one).  Jennifer Gilbert's memoir impressed me though, because she manages that balance beautifully.  I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag takes you on a candid journey through the highs and lows of Gilbert's life.  She has some amazing life lessons to share, but she also makes it clear that she is still learning as life marches along.  I appreciated that forthrightness, and Gilbert's sincere tone throughout the book is a big reason why I loved it.

Let's talk for a hot second about how amazingly resilient this woman is.  She has faced some seriously devastating tragedies in her life, and the fact that she is now able to look back on them with such clarity is inspiring.  Gilbert has suffered an attempted murder, countless heartbreaks, miscarriages...events that, by themselves, could totally sink someone for a lifetime.  Yet she has managed to pull through, become a successful businesswoman/wife/mother, and write a memoir that allows her to effectively share what she has learned.  If that's not uplifting, I don't know what is.  Her final message is simple ("You can't control what may happen to you in this life, but you can control who you want to be after it happens") but stirring...a good reminder for any difficult times in life.

Gilbert's story is sure to pull at your heart strings, because whether you're a daughter, mother, wife, girlfriend, or friend, there is some piece of her journey that you will find relatable.  I was personally moved by the last sections regarding her struggles in pregnancy and motherhood.  She speaks so meaningfully of the hopes and fears we have for our children--it immediately resonated within me.  While I've never suffered the magnitude of trauma that Gilbert has, that doesn't mean her story is out of reach for me as a reader.  She shares it in a way that clearly illustrates her frustration and pain, while also allowing you to relate it to it on your own level.

An added bonus here is that, among the harder subjects, you get some entertaining looks into Gilbert's job as an event planner in New York City.  Her job is not predictable by any means, and she's worked with some...interesting clientele over the years.  These tidbits add some levity, while also continuing to support the other, tougher stories at the heart of the book.

This is a fairly quick read (just over 200 pages), though not necessarily a "light" one.  There are some tough subjects tackled here.  But if you're in the mood for a memoir that will move and inspire, I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag is your next book.  (And admit it, you're kind of intrigued by the title anyway.)  I was going to offer up my copy for a giveaway, but sorry guys--it's too good.  I'm keeping it for a re-read.  NYAH-NYAH.

Much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Jennifer Gilbert on her websiteFacebook page, or Twitter account.

Have you read any inspiring memoirs lately?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Book Review: Frozen In Time by Mitchell Zuckoff



Title: Frozen In Time
Author: Mitchell Zuckoff
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: April 23, 2013
Source: ARC received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

On November 5, 1942, a U.S. cargo plane on a routine flight slammed into the Greenland ice cap. Four days later, a B-17 on the search-and-rescue mission became lost in a blinding storm and also crashed. Miraculously, all nine men on the B-17 survived. The U.S. military launched a second daring rescue operation, but the Grumman Duck amphibious plane sent to find the men flew into a severe storm and vanished.

In this thrilling adventure, Mitchell Zuckoff offers a spellbinding account of these harrowing disasters and the fate of the survivors and their would-be saviors. Frozen in Time places us at the center of a group of valiant airmen fighting to stay alive through 148 days of a brutal Arctic winter by sheltering from subzero temperatures and vicious blizzards in the tail section of the broken B-17 until an expedition headed by famed Arctic explorer Bernt Balchen attempts to bring them to safety.

But that is only part of the story that unfolds in Frozen in Time. In present-day Greenland, Zuckoff joins the U.S. Coast Guard and North South Polar--a company led by the indefatigable dreamer Lou Sapienza, who worked for years to solve the mystery of the Duck's last flight--on a dangerous expedition to recover the remains of the lost plane's crew.

Drawing on intensive research and Zuckoff 's firsthand account of the dramatic 2012 expedition, Frozen in Time is a breathtaking blend of mystery, adventure, heroism, and survival. It is also a poignant reminder of the sacrifices of our military personnel and their families--and a tribute to the important, perilous, and often-overlooked work of the U.S. Coast Guard.


My Review:

Two things initially drew my attention towards this book: first, it's Coast Guard-related (both my brother and stepbrother are Coasties, and I am exceedingly proud of them!).  Second, I was intrigued by the unique blend of past-meets-present that Zuckoff proposed in the book's synopsis.  Books that are purely nonfiction-historical usually don't grab me, but if that history is blended with a modern-day twist, I'm on board.

And let me tell you how happy I am that I tagged along for this ride.

Zuckoff's book reads like an intense, unpredictable docu-drama.  I didn't think that a nonfiction book could keep me in my seat better than an action movie, but this one did.  Zuckoff begins his narrative in November 1942, introducing us to the crew members of a Grumman Duck airplane that is soon fated to crash on Greenland's ice cap.  From there, the chapters alternate between the story surrounding the Duck's crash, and the 2012 journey of Lou Sapienza, a man hell-bent on finding the remains of the Duck and bringing its crew members home.  Zuckoff joined Sapienza's team as they traveled to Greenland for the search, so his accounts on that front are all first-hand.

The alternation between 1942 and 2012 is part of what makes the reading experience so intense.  Zuckoff has a knack for ending a chapter precisely at a big turning point, which makes you want to tear through the next chapter so that you can get to the next part of the story.  Except, he does the same thing to you at the end of the next chapter...and the next...and the next.  Until it's 2am and suddenly you're wondering why you didn't go to bed yet.

As I mentioned before, I sometimes have a hard time keeping interest in historical nonfiction books, but Zuckoff's writing in the 1942 chapters was far from dry or boring.  He takes care to make sure each crew member involved in the incident is thoroughly profiled.  As a reader, this makes you feel not only like you know each person, but that you are with them as they struggle for survival on the ice: their failures and successes make you cringe and celebrate as they go.  The trials and tribulations through which they had to persevere are astounding, and surely would have broken many weaker men and women.  I have similar admiration for the hard work of the members of the 2012 search team.  I felt invested in both stories--which sounds funny since they are true accounts, unaffected by my support or nonsupport--but it makes all the difference in terms of keeping your interest in the book.

The only wish I had for this epic tale was that a little more information could be provided about the 2012 Duck search.  The search team's adventures on the ice are intense, but their story ends when the search is almost--but not quite--completed.  I know this was likely done simply because that is as far as the search got before the book's publication, but what can I say--I'm a reader with big demands.  Holding off on publication until just a tad more of the work was completed would have made me happy.  I feel like I got so steeped in the search that I wanted to see it out all the way through to its total conclusion.

Final verdict?  This book would be an absolutely fabulous movie.  The story behind it is amazing, and highlights the bravery and dedication of America's wartime heroes.  (For the record: I already sent a copy to my Coastie brother for his birthday, because I think he will find it pretty inspiring!)  Plus, the determination of the 2012 search team is incredible.  Jon Krakauer fans, rejoice--you just found your next must-read.

Much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Mitchell Zuckoff on his website, Facebook page, or Twitter account.

Also (because I'm full of goodies and links today), here's the book trailer:

Have you read any great nonfiction lately?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Book Review: How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn



Title: How Green Was My Valley
Author: Richard Llewellyn
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication Date: 1939
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Huw Morgan, about to leave home forever, reminisces about the golden days of his youth, when South Wales still prospered and coal dust had not yet blackened the valley. Llewellyn's characters fight, love, laugh, and cry, creating an indelible portrait of a people.

My Review:

I picked up this book because I needed a novel set in Wales for last month's Around the World in 12 Books Challenge.  I was pretty excited to read about Wales, because my husband is 100% Welsh (or at least he thinks so...maybe some French Canadian in there?  But mostly Welsh).  And the only thing he has ever been able to tell me about the Welsh is that they are known for ditch digging.  I suspect that's about as accurate as saying my Irish ancestors are only known for being hungry for potatoes.  Ah, stereotypes!

When I finished this book, I turned to my husband and said, "You should read this.  It would make you feel proud to be Welsh."  Because seriously, what an epic, spirited portrayal of South Wales in the late 1800's.  This is easily one of the better classics that I've read in a LONG time.

Now, when I say this book would fill you with Welsh pride, I don't mean that everything in it is happy.  OH NO.  This book has tons of sads and feels.  The description above doesn't tell you much, but Huw is the youngest of six brothers, and he also has three sisters to boot.  The Morgans live in a valley of South Wales and work primarily as coal miners.  (Ditch digging, almost?)  The book begins with Huw as an adult, leaving his family home, but you don't find out why just yet.  Nope, because Huw then backtracks to when he was just a little boy (age six, I believe) and begins to tell us the story of his upbringing.

I love a well-done coming-of-age novel, and I daresay that Huw Morgan might be tied for my favorite coming-of-age character (alongside Francie Nolan of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn).  Llewellyn did an absolutely terrific job illustrating how Huw grows physically and emotionally throughout his life.  When the story opens, he's just an innocent kid living in pretty prosperous times.  But as the novel progresses, he faces his fair share of hard knocks (as does his family), and he matures before your eyes.  Llewellyn does this in such a way that the progression is evenly-paced, but not painfully slow (as can happen with some epic stories).  I was never, ever bored while reading this novel, and I found myself rooting for Huw all along the way.

Huw was obviously my favorite character, but the others in the novel became near and dear to my heart as well.  Each of Huw's MANY siblings had a distinct personality and passion that came through loud and clear.  For example, his sister Angharad, who became one of the best female characters in the history of ever when she told off a male suitor with this line:

"I am Angharad Morgan," she said, and the river never ran colder.  "Go to hell."

YOU SING IT, SISTER!!  PREACH!

And two of his friends (Dai Bando and Cyfartha) were probably my favorite side characters, because they were HILARIOUS.  (There are some really great one-liners in this book, which is not something I normally say about a classic.)  Honestly, the entire village of people around the Morgans was an amazing, cohesive unit that puts modern day neighborhood friendships to shame.  The comraderie and support among all of the characters was inspiring, and a big reason why I told my husband that this book would make him proud to be Welsh.

But one of the best characters of all?  WALES!  And you're thinking, wait, that's the setting.  EXACTLY.  Llewellyn basically turns this South Wales valley into a character all its own.  It's not just the descriptions of the picturesque mountains or the ever-changing winds, but the way that the setting plays a crucial role in many of the important events of the characters' lives.  This novel couldn't be set anywhere else and be able to tell the same story.

I haven't read a real epic classic in a while, mostly because Middlemarch scared me off a couple of years ago.  How Green Was My Valley was my first foray back into that territory, and I am not sorry. This is a truly fantastic book and it's going on my favorites shelf.  READ IT!

Other reviews of How Green Was My Valley:
Caribou's Mom
Impressions In Ink
Book Light Graveyard

Do you have a favorite classic?  And have you ever visited Wales?  Because now I want to go to there.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

So how are those challenges going? *squirm*

Remember all those awesome reading challenges that I was posting about late last year?  Just to refresh your memory, psycho-me signed up for 5 challenges for 2013.  Now that we're 25% into the year, I figured I would keep myself honest by reporting my progress (or lack thereof) to my reading audience.

Without further ado!

Challenge #1: Around The World in 12 Books Challenge
Read 1 book a month, each from a different specified country.
I'm not doing too bad here.  I kept up with the January and February countries, but fell a little behind with March (I have just a few pages left in my Wales novel now, so only a few days behind!).  I am hoping to read my Fiji book on time this month, and get back on track.

Current Grade: B+

Challenge #2: Monthly Keyword Challenge
Read 1 book a month, each with a different keyword in the title.
Pretty much the same as Challenge #1.  Did great with January/February, but my Wales book is doubling as my March keyword book, so I will be a few days late getting this one finished up.  Looking to get back on track in April!

Current Grade: B+

Challenge #3: Foodies Read Challenge
Read 4 food-related books.
I've completed 1 out of the 4 books that I signed up to read here, so I guess I'm right on track.  I have eleventy billion food books checked out from the library right now (as you can see here), so hopefully I will tuck another one under my belt soon.

Current Grade: A

Challenge #4: Audiobook Challenge
Listen to at least 6 audiobooks.
Doing awesome on this one!!  I only signed up to finish 6 audiobooks this year, but I've already done 4.  It helps that I listen to them so much during my commutes.  I may actually raise the bar here and go for the next level up (12).

Current Grade: A++

Challenge #5: Mount TBR Challenge
Read at least 24 books from my at-home TBR pile.
This one is going to be a total wash.  I have only read ONE out of the 24 books I was hoping to take off my TBR pile this year.  There is no way I'm going to finish this one, especially given all the review copies that I have coming up in May/June.  I'll honestly be surprised if I make it to 10 by the end of the year.  And this is all not to mention the TONS of new books I've added to my possession the last few months.  FAIL!

Current Grade: F-

Readers, did you sign up for any reading challenges this year?  How are they going so far?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Review: I'll Take What She Has by Samantha Wilde



Title: I'll Take What She Has
Author: Samantha Wilde
Publisher: Bantam
Publication Date: February 26, 2013
Source: e-ARC received via NetGalley for an honest review

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Nora and Annie have been best friends since kindergarten. Nora, a shy English teacher at a quaint New England boarding school, longs to have a baby. Annie, an outspoken stay-at-home mother of two, longs for one day of peace and quiet (not to mention more money and some free time). Despite their very different lives, nothing can come between them—until Cynthia Cypress arrives on campus.
 
Cynthia has it all: brains, beauty, impeccable style, and a gorgeous husband (who happens to be Nora’s ex). When Cynthia eagerly befriends Nora, Annie’s oldest friendship is tested. Now, each woman must wrestle the green-eyed demon of envy and, in the process, confront imperfect, mixed-up family histories they don’t want to repeat. Amid the hilarious and harried straits of friendship, marriage, and parenthood, the women may discover that the greenest grass is right beneath their feet.


My Review:

As I mentioned in my Monday post, I love me some mommy fiction.  Motherhood is in a unique zip code of Crazy-Town that has a very specific set of worries, rewards, and neuroses.  Women's fiction novels that deal in this area are, admittedly, targeting a very specific audience, but I think that audience is often eager to see their daily joys and sorrows brought to life on the page.

Hence my excitement for this novel.  As it opened, I found myself enamored with the two main characters, Nora and Annie.  The chapters alternate between their points-of-view.  Nora is desperate for a baby, and has been trying to conceive for nearly a year with her husband Alfie.  Her best friend Annie, on the other hand, has two "oopsie" babies (very fertile, she is) and stays at home to care for them.  She's convinced that she's meant to stay at home, and not work...or is she?

Right away, I was struck by how vividly and humorously Wilde was able to write about Nora and Annie's opposing struggles.  From Nora's frantic ovulation charting, to Annie's hectic diffusion of toddler tantrums, she had me laughing and sympathizing with both of them.  I was impressed by the wide array of mothering issues that were touched upon in the novel, and in a way that will leave mom-readers nodding and smiling as they go.  Plus, Wilde's writing style is such that she often purposely leaves you hanging with certain conversations and details, which is a great way to keep you interested from chapter to chapter.

However, in the end I felt rather lukewarm about this book.  Why?  Well, outside of the clarity with which the motherhood issues were illustrated, the rest of the book felt a little shallow.  Take, for instance, Cynthia Cypress--the new friend of Nora's that is mentioned in the book description.  She plays a fairly large role in the plot, but her character is annoyingly flat and one-sided.  For someone who has such an emotional impact on the protagonists, we learn very little about Cynthia by the end of the novel.  At first, I thought this was an attempt to shroud her in mystery, but the "reveal" about her at the end was underwhelming, and didn't seem to warrant her lack of development throughout the book.

I felt similarly about the plot action as a whole.  Its movement was very slow, and often anticlimactic.  I found that, by the conclusion, I didn't have much emotion towards how everything wrapped up.  It was rather a feeling of, "...that's it?"  Much like with Cynthia's character, the major plot events were not built up enough throughout the novel, which makes the ending feel bland.  There is also a lot of repetition in the novel, best illustrated by the constant use of the phrase "I'll take what she has" (or some variation) in the character's conversations.  This constant use of the title became grating after a while, even though the message it attempts to convey is a good one (the grass is not always greener on the other side).

Final verdict?  This book is a perfect illustration of a 3-star Goodreads review.  There were a lot of things I loved: the motherhood anecdotes, the humor, the jumping POV between characters, the underlying message.  However, there were a lot of weaknesses in the foundational parts of the book:  plot and character development.  In the end, this one was middle-of-the-road for me.

Other reviews of I'll Take What She Has:
Book'd Out
5 Minutes For Books
Life, Army Wife Style

Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad



Title: Heart of Darkness
Author: Joseph Conrad
Publisher: Blackwoods Magazine (originally published there in three parts)
Publication Date: 1899
Source: personal purchase

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

One of Conrad's finest stories, loosely based on the author's experience of rescuing a company agent from a remote station in the heart of the Congo, Heart of Darkness is set in an atmosphere of mystery and lurking danger, and tells of Marlow's perilous journey up the Congo River to relieve his employer's agent, the fabled and terrifying Mr. Kurtz. What Marlow sees on his journey horrifies and perplexes him, and what his encounter with Kurtz reveals calls into question all of his assumptions about civilization and human nature. 

My Review:

Last week, when I reviewed Just One Day, I was complaining to myself that there is nothing harder than reviewing a book that is a wildly-popular current fave.  But I was wrong--it's harder to review a classic!  What can you say about a book that's been around for 100+ years that hasn't already been said?

And what if you thought it was...just okay?  How do you approach a review of a classic with, "Eh, you know, it was so-so"?  English professors the world over would promptly drop dead.

Well, English profs, get your heart meds handy, because Heart of Darkness is going solidly in my "meh" category.  (The horror!)

...yes, that was a bit of a meta-joke, for those who got it.

Anyway, I think part of the issue for me was that my expectations were high.  I had no idea that the movie Apocalypse Now was based on this novella, and I think we can all agree that Apocalypse Now is a fan-friggin-tastic movie.  So when I found that out, I was pretty stoked.  However, I quickly realized that the movie is based more on the themes and tone of this book, rather than the actual details.

Heart of Darkness is the tale of Marlow, currently on a ship in England, who is telling his shipmates about a previous journey he took as a steamboat captain in the Belgian Congo.  The purpose of this journey was to recover Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader gone rogue in the wilderness.  Which, if you've seen the movie, will get you amped up for some really weird stuff, because the movie-version Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is CRAY-CRAY.  However, the book-version Kurtz actually has very little physical presence in the story--he is only around for a small portion of it.  Instead, the "idea" of him and what he represents plays a much bigger role in the plot than what he actually says and does.

Don't get me wrong, the book is not a total disappointment.  I understand why it's used so much in literature classes, because Conrad touches on a lot of important themes (good vs evil, roles of women, colonialism, etc).  And the narrative style is interesting: Marlow is telling the story to his shipmates, so you get steeped in the plot for a while, and then randomly get pulled out of it as Marlow jumps back to present day at times. If I felt like doing a lot of analysis and interpretations, there's plenty here to keep me busy.  However, as far as just straight entertainment value, the book moved a lot slower than I expected, and ended on a rather anticlimactic note.

Overall, it's a classic, so I won't deter anyone from reading it.  It's one of those books you just have to say you've read at some point (at 105 pages, you have no excuse!).  But it's certainly a book to save for when you have the time for thoughtful reflection.

What are some of the best classics you've read lately?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review: Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio



Title: Blackberry Winter
Author: Sarah Jio
Publisher: Plume
Publication Date: September 25, 2012
Source: personal purchase via Kindle

Plot Summary from Goodreads

Seattle, 1933. Single mother Vera Ray kisses her three-year-old son, Daniel, goodnight and departs to work the night-shift at a local hotel. She emerges to discover that a May-Day snow has blanketed the city, and that her son has vanished. Outside, she finds his beloved teddy bear lying face-down on an icy street, the snow covering up any trace of his tracks, or the perpetrator's.
Seattle, 2010. Seattle Herald reporter Claire Aldridge, assigned to cover the May 1 "blackberry winter" storm and its twin, learns of the unsolved abduction and vows to unearth the truth. In the process, she finds that she and Vera may be linked in unexpected ways...


My Review:

I saw this book here and there around the blogosphere, but when someone told me "you'll like this if you like Jodi-Picoult-esque novels", I was sold.  You can get me to read the back of a deodarent stick if you tell me it reads like a Jodi Picoult novel.

I can see why Jio's book is compared to JP.  At its core is a mysterious and moving story, as Claire searches for the long-missing Daniel, and deals with her personal losses at the same time.  The story itself is what kept me turning the pages.  I wanted to know what happened to Daniel, I wanted to know what happened in Claire's past and whether she would reconcile with it, and I wanted to know where Vera went.  Jio always has a new mystery for you to uncover, and that's the best aspect of this book.  Plus, the mother/son relationship between Vera and Daniel is awesome.  Maybe I'm just a sucker because I have a son, but by the end, I was getting teary every time I learned more about them.  What can I say, motherhood turned me into a sap.  I AM NOT ASHAMED.

I do wish that the writing were stronger, though.  While there were a few unpredictable twists at the end, for the most part, Jio has a tendency to make the answers to her mysteries a bit too obvious.  And as a reader, I don't like to feel like I'm being hand-held through the plot.  I figured out one of the big "reveals" before I hit the 10% mark of the novel.  There are just too many blatant hints about how certain people will become significant to the plot, and with a little more creative wordcrafting, that could have been avoided.

Also, the writing itself (especially the dialogue) feels clunky and stilted at times.  It's clear that Jio skips out on certain details or emotional embellishments when she's trying to lead you towards the next clue in the mystery.  For example, at one point Claire and a companion are searching a house, and stumble across a broken window and some missing items.  Clearly a burglary.  But they oddly ignore it and move onto the next room in the house (where they, TA-DA, end up finding the next clue).  This felt strange, and illustrates how the author spent too much time only focusing on the important details, rather than fleshing out the full story.

Overall: an intriguing story that will tug at your heart-strings, for sure.  Despite my caveats about the way it was written, I don't regret jumping into this story at all.  I just wish the writing style made the plot shine a bit more.

Have you read this (or other) Sarah Jio novel(s)?  Thoughts, dear readers?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Review: The Thief of Auschwitz by Jon Clinch




Title: The Thief of Auschwitz
Author: Jon Clinch
Publisher: unmediated ink (self-published)
Publication Date: January 2013
Source: e-book provided by the author for an honest review

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

"The camp at Auschwitz took one year of my life, and of my own free will I gave it another four."

So begins The Thief of Auschwitz, the much-anticipated new novel from Jon Clinch, award-winning author of Finn and Kings of the Earth.

In The Thief of Auschwitz, Clinch steps for the first time beyond the deeply American roots of his earlier books to explore one of the darkest moments in mankind’s history—and to do so with the sympathy, vision, and heart that are the hallmarks of his work.

Told in two intertwining narratives, The Thief of Auschwitz takes readers on a dual journey: one into the death camp at Auschwitz with Jacob, Eidel, Max, and Lydia Rosen; the other into the heart of Max himself, now an aged but extremely vital—and outspoken—survivor. Max is a renowned painter, and he’s about to be honored with a retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington. The truth, though, is that he’s been keeping a crucial secret from the art world—indeed from the world at large, and perhaps even from himself—all his life long.

The Thief of Auschwitz reveals that secret, along with others that lie in the heart of a family that’s called upon to endure—together and separately—the unendurable.


My Review:

Remember back when I said I was struggling with self-published novels?  To summarize; I said that I had had very bad luck with self-pubs in the past (which is why my review policy says I do not accept them for review).  However, I had been solicited to review several that sounded really, really promising, so I took the plunge and agreed to read two of them.  The first was Bluff by Lenore Skomal, which, though it had its hitches, was overall a very coherent and engaging read.  My cold reviewer heart began to melt, just a tad.

The Thief of Auschwitz is the second self-published novel that I decided to read and review.  This is partially because I was intrigued by Jon Clinch's personal publication journey.  You can read about it HERE, but basically, he had what so many authors covet: a publishing deal with Random House.  Even so, it ended up causing him more frustration than success, so for his newest novel, he decided to self-publish.  His "microbrewery approach," as he calls it, allows him to have more control over the success or failure of his writing, from the social media outreach, to the sales numbers on Amazon.  It was a risky move, but admirable--and so far, it seems to be working.

Okay, enough talking about how Jon Clinch kicked the publishing industry in the ass.  What did I think of the book?

I thought...the book rocked.

Gripping, masterfully written, profound--I sound like a flippin' book jacket, but The Thief of Auschwitz is all of these things.

The Holocaust is a difficult subject for authors to tackle, because it's been written about so many times before.  Adding another fictional perspective runs the risk of either not hitting the mark that the nonfiction accounts describe, or repeating the impassioned efforts of other fiction novels.  However, The Thief of Auschwitz is not lacking in authenticity or sentiment, and in fact captures the harrowing everyday lives of the death camp prisoners in a way that I found to be remarkably unique.

Clinch's writing style is much of what drives that uniqueness.  Most Holocaust books I've read (everything from Anne Frank to Wiesel's Night) focus very much on using passion-filled language to nail down the emotional core of that time period--which, of course, is appropriate and often unavoidable.  However, Clinch's novel speaks in a crisp, straightforward manner about the things the Rosen family had to do to survive in the camp, and in so doing, the emotional aspects seep out between the lines.  It is amazing to see how the family moves from being carefree and compassionate, to hardened and survival-focused by the time we reach the end:

"The good news...is that there's been a catastrophe on the rail project and scores of men have died."

Plus, the mystery.  The story of the family's time in the camp is told alongside Max's modern-day perspective, as he (now a world-renowned painter at the end of his career) slowly reveals a secret that he has been keeping from the art world.  Clinch builds the tension in both the historical narrative and Max's secret in the last 10% of the novel, to the point where you literally will not want to put it down.  All is not revealed until the very end, and while it's not a Gone-Girl-esque atom-bomb ending, it's still a reveal that takes your breath a bit, and fits with the emotional climate of the rest of the novel.

My only (small) gripe about this novel is the title.  While there is thievery involved (and it relates to the central mystery of the story), I just felt like it didn't capture the majority of the plot very well.  There are so many other things that I think the title could capture, about art and beauty and love through adversity, but it just doesn't.  Again, this is a very small disappointment, as no matter what the title, the book itself is still awesome.

Final verdict: read this book.  If you already gravitate towards books about the Holocaust, this is a must.  But even if you don't, the Rosen family's story is still one that is painstakingly told and worth experiencing.

(As for me and self-pubs?  Clinch knocked this one out of the park, but I'm still taking it day by day...)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

More Challenges!

OK y'all, I signed up for 4 more 2013 reading challenges.  Everybody, STOP POSTING AWESOME CHALLENGES.  I can't stop signing up for them.

I'm really done now though.  I already told you about the Monthly Keyword Challenge, and now I also am declaring:

Around The World in 12 Books Challenge, hosted by Giraffe Days
This is going to be SO FUN.  I love to travel, and doing it through books is fun too!

Mount TBR Challenge, hosted by My Reader's Block

I've signed up to read Mont Blanc (at least 24 books from my TBR pile).

Foodies Read Challenge, hosted by Foodies Read
 
I've signed up for Pastry Chef level (4-8 food-related books).

Audiobook Challenge, hosted by Teresa's Reading Corner

I've signed up for Flirting (listening to at least 6 audiobooks).

No more challenges, Kelly.  NO MORE.

(But look at them all...aren't they pretty...)

You can keep track of my progress next year on my 2013 Challenges page.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

2013 Monthly Keyword Challenge

So, I am on the hunt for some fun reading challenges in 2013.  I didn't do any specific challenges this year (other than my Goodreads goal of at least 50 books--WIN!), but I want to get back into doing some next year.

The first one that caught my eye was the Monthly Keyword Challenge, hosted by Bookmark to Blog.

Each month, you have to read a book that covers one of the possible keywords assigned for the month, which you can find HERE.

I am going to participate, and here's the list of books I'm thinking about reading so far, based on the keywords.  (Bonus: these are all from my TBR pile at home, so it will also help me with the TBR challenges I am planning to do!!)  I underlined the keyword in each title.

January: Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio, or Devil In The White City by Erik Larson
February: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
March: At The Mercy of the Mountains by Peter Bronski
April: The Cider House Rules by John Irving, or Jordan Freeman Was My Friend by Richard White
May: The World According to Garp by John Irving, or The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
June: East of the Sun by Julia Gregson
July: Any of my Chicken Soup for the Soul books...I have several
August: The Drowning Tree by Carol Goodman
September: The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs
October: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
November: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, or The Last Juror by John Grisham
December: The Road Ahead by Bill Gates

Fun challenge!  Who else is in?

 
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