Monday, December 30, 2013

The Best and Worst Books I Read of 2013

Although it wasn't my 2013 New Year's Resolution, I read more books in 2013 than any other year.  Because I recently resigned from my high school English teacher position where I needed to reread the same 10 classics each year (which don't get me wrong rereading The Great Gatsby, Hamlet and To Kill A Mockingbird among others each year was a gift more than a curse), I sometimes had time to squeeze in a book each month between grading stacks of student essays and narratives. When I no longer needed to bend my head over the seemingly endless grading and no longer had the same classics to teach, I went on a book binge.  For the past 8 months, I read at least one book a week, many weeks I read two and occasionally I read three.  The following is a list of the best books and the worst books from my 2013 book bender (note: for this post I only chose books that were published in 2d013):

The Best Books I Read of 2013:

1) And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Infused with fable, loaded with tragedy and triumph, and unforgettable intersecting characters, Hosseini's latest tribute to Afghanistan and beyond broke my heart and made me respect his prowess as a writer.  Even though I loved both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, this book now reigns as my Hosseini favorite.

2) The Round House by Louise Erdrich: I am embarrassed to admit that I never read a novel by Louise Erdrich before especially after I fell in love with the National Book Award winning The Round House.  This part coming of age novel, part mystery, part crime thriller, part mystic Native American lore kept me captivated from the first chapter.

3) A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett: I didn't want to talk to anyone as the story of Amanda and Nigel's Somalia kidnapping unfolded.  I cried, I cheered, I felt anxious and sick for the day and a half this book held me hostage.  I have recommended this memoir to so many people since I read it because ultimately it is the story of survival through hope.  A huge thank you to Suzi at the NCTE Convention in Boston for recommending it to me.

4) Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell: I fell in love with this simple romance between two very unlikely romantic counterparts.  The freshness of the storyline set in the 1980s reminded me of a John Hughes film with big twists but without the drama.  I loved the title characters and their simple tale of falling love against all odds.

5) Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala: I love memoirs, and this one made me understand the devastation of the tragic tsunami along the Sri Lankan coast during the Christmas holiday travel season in 2004.  Deraniyagala's survival and devastation of losing her entire family and trying to make sense of it touched my soul and made me appreciate the value of each moment I am lucky enough to have with my family.

6) Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller: In this memoir Miller bared her dirty, big secrets of growing up with parents who were both hoarders.  She retells her often bug infested and trash heaped past, but pays respect to her parents who loved her so much but couldn't come clean from their own hoarding sickness even if it meant giving her a "normal" upbringing.  Kimberly Rae Miller's bravery to tell this story needs to be recognized.

7) After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey: At first I wasn't so sure about this memoir where Hainey divulges his quest to find the truth of his father's mysterious death.  Because it was told in bits and pieces of interviews, clues, conversations, and recollections, my brain didn't latch on to the style at first, but as soon as he started to uncover more and more about his father's past, I was hooked on the unconventional telling and was breathless at the conclusion.

8) Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh: This graphic novel memoir compiled the best of Allie Brosh's award winning blog by the same name and presented new material.  I wasn't familiar with her blog before hearing her speak on NPR, but was compelled enough by her interview that I wanted to buy the book.  I laughed, I felt uncomfortable, and I thought of Allie as she cried during her interview as she recollected her darkest days as she dealt with the black cloud of depression.  The creativity of both the retelling of the stories and the illustrations kept me intrigued.

The Worst Books I Read of 2013:

1) Inferno by Dan Brown: I don't know what I expected.  I admit that I liked The Davinci Code, and because of that I read a few of Brown's other books.  BUT - I don't think I will ever read another one because this book was really, really awful.  I mean seriously bad.  Why? Ridiculous story lines, drab characters, formulaic writing, bad editing and eye roll worthy conflicts and resolutions.  My husband and I nicknamed this book (which we both slogged through and laughed about at certain spots) Dumbferno.

2) Allegiant by Veronica Roth: Okay. I know that every teenage girl who read this book and loved it will despise me for saying anything bad about the end of the Divergent Trilogy, but I am actually proud of myself for even attempting to read it after I struggled with Insurgent (the second book in the Trilogy).  Roth seemed to give up.  Tris got more and more unlikable, as did Four, and the story twists and turns felt forced and silly.  Roth's writing actually seemed to get worse with each book.  I actually cheered when I finished the book because it was OVER!

3) The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon: This much hyped book written by 21 year old Samantha Shannon was selected by The Today show as they launched an Oprah-esque book club series.  Shannon's futuristic London world was touted as the next J.K. Rowling success story with seven books slated in the series.  With movie rights already pending, the book should be incredible, right?  I found myself wanting it to be over and questioning whether or not I really enjoyed the story of the Clairvoyant hierarchy and the Rephiam conflict.  At the end I wasn't hungry for the second installment let alone six more.

4) The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer: I still hear about this book and how incredible it was, but it only seemed REALLY, REALLY long to me.  I liked parts of it, but overall the drab and depressing story lines and the unlikable characters made me think that it was not so interesting to force myself through this one.  It could just be me, but I loved the idea of the book - a pack of friends form life long friendships at a camp for gifted kids.  The reality of the book did not intrigue me as much as the idea.

5) The Silver Star by Jeanette Walls: I'm so disappointed that Jeanette Walls is on my worst books of 2013, but I think that her book is here because I loved her memoir The Glass Castle and expected so much more out of her first attempt to write fiction.  Instead of loving this, I couldn't help but feel like she wanted it to be the new To Kill a Mockingbird and she started a great story with so much potential, but it fizzled so much by the end that it left me feeling empty.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Raina's Faves: Top 10 Books for Elementary School Aged Book Lovers

Maybe I obsessed a bit much over bringing books into my daughter Raina's life.  Before I even bought a onesie or diaper, shopped for cribs, figured out how to install a baby car seat, read What to Expect When You are Expecting, or did any other nesting activity, I scoured yard sales and the internet for great deals on books to start a library for Raina.  When we designed her nursery, building a floor to ceiling bookshelf topped my list for "must haves" in her room.  So, you could say that the fact that Raina loves to read really doesn't shock me.  What does sometimes throw me a bit is the voracity that she tears through books.  She will stay up all night to finish a series.  In the summer when we go to the library, I need to limit the amount of books she checks out just to insure that she will get into the pool at my mom's house.  Many nights we need to give her the "It's 10pm, and you need to get up for school tomorrow so even though we made you this way with books, you must put that great book down and get some sleep" talk.

Today, my book-loving, baby girl turns 9 years old, and in honor of her birthday, I asked Raina which books out of all the books she has read stand out as her favorites.  We looked at her bookshelf, and we talked about each of these books.  As we chatted, she tuned me out and started rereading a book (she's still reading it now), but I did manage to get her top 10 list of her favorite books of all time (so far) with a little quote about why she chose the books that she loved best:

*These are in no particular order

1) Captain Underpants (the entire series) by Dav Pilkey-
Parent side note: I was reluctant at first with these books because of the potty humor, but seeing Raina laugh out loud when she read these in 1st grade made them okay for me.  She was even okay with getting car sick just to finish one of these books.  They are great for girls or boys - advanced or reluctant readers.
From Raina: "These books are so funny! They're about a superhero that flies around in his underpants saving people from crime.  The names make me laugh and so do the pictures."

2) Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the entire series) by Jeff Kinney-
Parent side note: I LOVE these books just as much as Raina does.  We watched the movie together as a family and loved it, too.  They may better for 3rd graders and up, but Raina read most of the series when she was in 1st and 2nd grade.  Boys or girls would love this series - advanced or reluctant readers.
From Raina: "These books follow Greg Heffley's life in a diary format.  Funny things happen to him, and I love stories based on diaries."

3) Little House on the Prairie (the entire series) by Laura Ingalls Wilder-
Parent side note: These books bring back so many memories for me.  When Raina received the first 5 books in a box set from her grandparents for Christmas, we bought the t.v. series on DVD.  I remember watching all the episodes with my sisters when I was a little girl, but I did NOT remember how hot Pa was.  Michael Landon makes me drool a bit when I watch these, but I also cry at the touching story lines like when Pa had to leave his family to make money because his crops died.  He walked barefoot for days just to get home! Men today don't know how easy they have it. This book series is probably better for girls (and women of any age will really like looking at Pa - especially the episodes where he takes his shirt off.  For real.) - advanced readers will most likely enjoy these books more since they move a bit slower.
From Raina: "I love the details and how these books tell about what life was really like in the olden days."

4) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl-
Parent side note: My third grade teacher basically destroyed my self esteem and flipped out on our class every other day, BUT he read this book out loud to us and it became my favorite book ever.  I checked it out of the library and reread my favorite parts as often as I could.  Raina's 2nd grade teacher read the book aloud to her class, and Raina recently played the role of Oompa Loompa in York Little Theater's production of Willy Wonka.  She was a bit obsessed with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for a bit. We watched and compared the two movies, sang the songs, read the book, listened to the musical soundtrack in the car, and then watched her do cute little Oompa Loompa dances on stage. This book is good for boys or girls - advanced readers or a great read aloud for any level of reader.
From Raina: "This book is my favorite! It's full of chocolate and details, and you can just melt into this book.  All the characters are very naughty except for Charlie."

5) Goosebumps (any of these books) by R. L. Stine-
Parent side note: I need to admit that after Raina read a few of these books that she suffered nightmares.  She freaked about playing her piano because one of the books had a storyline about phantom hands that played a piano.  I probably won't win parent of the year for allowing her to continue reading these books (I did actually ban them at one point when she refused to walk upstairs by herself if any of the lights were out), but these books are addictive and foster a love of reading and an understanding of mood.  I still don't allow her to watch the television series even if each story turns out not so scary at the end (that counts for something, right?) These books are good for boys or girls - advanced or reluctant readers.
From Raina: "I always liked scary books and Goosebumps books are SCARY! This is the best series of scary books."

6) Bad Kitty (any of these books) by Nick Bruel-
Parent side note: Raina reads these books in less than an hour, so it might be more economical to check them out of the library.  She does like to reread them.  They make her laugh out loud, so in the hour that she reads or rereads any Bad Kitty book, I can hear her laughter emanating through the house.  Because these are graphic novels, they are great for boys or girls - advanced or reluctant readers.
From Raina: "Bad Kitty is about a crazy, bad cat.  It's fun reading about the life of a cat.  But she is BAD."

7) Dear Dumb Diary (the entire series) by Jim Benton
Parent side note: Because these books are a "sneak peak inside the diary of Jamie Kelly" who is a student at Mackerel Middle School, these books are more appropriate for older girls who are middle school age, but Raina received these as a gift from my best friend's daughter and she couldn't resist the hot pink covers, the funny illustrations, and the snarky personality of Jamie Kelly.  These books are for girls - advanced elementary school readers or any middle school reading level.
From Raina: "I love that these are in diary format.  Jamie Kelly writes really funny things."

8) The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Parent side note: When I was Raina's age, this series was my favorite.  I checked every single book out of the library and stayed up and read one a night.  I loved the magical world of Oz which is way more complex than the famous movie shows.  We started this one as a read aloud before bed, but Raina decided she wanted to read it herself instead. This book is good for boys or girls - more of an advanced level.
From Raina: "This is a great fantasy book full of interesting characters. The whole idea of the book is mind blowing with munchkins, witches and a big adventure.  What's not to love?"

9) Katie Kazoo (entire series) by Nancy Krulik
Parent side note: My pediatrician said her daughter loved these books, so I tried them with Raina when she was in first grade.  She LOVED them and got hooked on the series.  If your daughter likes Judy Moody or Junie B. Jones, she will love this series, too. This series is best for girls - advanced or reluctant readers.
From Raina: "The cool part of Katie Kazoo is that she switcheroos from a normal girl into a whole different person when the magic winds blow.  I like the perspective switch."

10) Judy Moody (entire series) by Megan McDonald
Parent side note: Judy Moody is a very sassy girl, but she is lovable, too.  It seems like every elementary school girl knows about Judy Moody books, so this is a good series to get your daughter hooked on reading. This series is best for girls - advanced or reluctant readers.
From Raina: "I love that these books are realistic fiction.  Judy's personality makes the books really good because she is daring and mischievous."

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Husband's Secret: Lies, Seduction, and Skeletons in Closets

"There are so many secrets about our lives we'll never know."

Liane Moriarty's book The Husband's Secret takes a harrowing look at the damage of long kept secrets, and short term affairs - both emotional and sexual. The novel opens with Cecilia Fitzpatrick deciding whether or not to open a letter written by her husband, John-Paul, that she found in the attic when a stack of old tax receipts toppled over accidentally.

Two other story lines intersect Cecilia's troubles as she uncovers her husband's secrets. The second story line involves the crumbling marriage of Tess and Will right after Felicity, Tess's best friend and cousin, and Will sit Tess down to tell her that they are involved in a love affair that has yet to be consummated.  In Will and Felicity's love oblivion they believe that Tess will somehow consent to this love affair and possibly even allow all of them to live in the same house together.  In a fit of disbelief, Tess leaves Will and Felicity to sort things out while she and her son, Liam stay at her mother's home.

Meanwhile, Rachel Crowley, a school secretary, deals with her depression stemming from her husband's recent death, her son's latest news that he, his wife, and his son, Jacob (Rachel's only bright spot in her days) are moving from Australia to New York City for a great business opportunity, and Rachel still suffers from the horrendous murder of her only daughter, Janie, which after almost 30 years is still unsolved.

Does all of that sound like a soap opera?
It read like one, too.

Pop culture, modernity and history cross the lives of all three characters with thoughts on Tupperware parties, The Biggest Loser and the Berlin Wall.  Rather than making the story feel more relevant and fresh, Moriarty's narrative read almost farcically at times.  I liked the fact that even a serious book with the underlying theme that we never really know a person even when we think we do, didn't need to take itself so seriously, but at times I rolled my eyes at the dialogue or the twisted fates of the characters.  Moriarty relies heavily on the idea that "karma is a bitch" almost to a fault, but the absolution and redemptive nature of the plots kept me engaged until the end.  The flashbacks to the day Janie was murdered (and fast forwards of what awaited her in the life she never led) showed Moriarty's prowess as a gifted storyteller.

Although I raced through The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty and enjoyed parts of the book, I can't say I loved it.  At the end, even after the fast forward Epilogue, I couldn't quite wrap my head around what I didn't love about it.  Maybe it was the melodramatic way that the stories all intertwined around the tragic car incident close to the end.  Maybe it was the easy transition from marriage to love affair and back again for Tess.  Maybe it was the ease of forgiveness, or the way karma had to intercede even though John-Paul paid a lifetime's worth of penance.

If you need a book with a murder mystery, a steamy romance, a dissolving marriage, truths that are uncovered and paid for in ways that are almost unthinkable, and a neurotic, Tupperware-selling housewife who takes pride in her perfect life, The Husband's Secret might be the best book you have ever read.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

A House in the Sky: A Story of Hope

A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett held me hostage for two days. I couldn't stop reading the terrifying account of Amanda and Nigel's kidnapping in Somalia.  I felt their fear when their captors forced them into a jeep and locked them in a room with two small mats and mosquito nets. I visualized their anguish when their captors shackled their ankles just in case they tried to escape.  I cried for Amanda's torture and rape.  I understood her religious conversion and her clever manipulation of her guards.  When she and Nigel found ways to communicate after their separation, I rejoiced in their  reunion and secret Christmas presents.

Mostly as I read this book I gasped.  My husband watched me reading and continually asked me, "What is going on in that book?  It's like you're not here."  And when I told him the story of Amanda and Nigel's Somalia capture, he wanted to know the play by play.  Each hour he saw me reading he asked, "Did they escape?" or "How are they doing now?"  I hardly wanted to come up for air to explain it to him as I flew through the pages to find out what happened to Nigel and Amanda.

What, you might be asking, led to the capture of Nigel and Amanda, two amateur photographers and journalists, in Somalia? The story Amanda tells starts in her impoverished childhood where she dumpster dove for fun - rifling through the remnants of other's trash to find treasures.  As an adult Amanda sought escape and comfort in travel, and when she found her footing on foreign soil, she wanted the thrill and challenge of visiting forbidden places - Afghanistan, Beirut, Baghdad, Amman, and Damascus.  When she received the opportunity to travel to Somalia as a journalist and photographer, she reasoned with herself that "there were stories here - a raging war, and impending famine, religious extremists, and a culture that had been largely shut out of sight." She wanted to "do stories that mattered, that moved people" even with the impending danger and even with the knowledge that few reporters risked going to Somalia.  As the Italian missionary man on the fretful plan ride to Somalia told her and Nigel, "Be very careful in Mogadishu . . . Your head is worth a half million dollars there.  And that's just for your head."

Even with the sinking feeling in her soul, and the warnings from others, Amanda and Nigel forged forward to Somalia with the blind faith that their guides and press passes would protect them.

They didn't last long in the harsh landscape of violence before Somalia reared its ugliness.  Amanda and Nigel were captured and held hostage and thrust into a bizarre business world of negotiations, ransom, political maneuvers, religious extremists, fear, and suffering.

I felt this book the whole way through, and rejoiced at the end of the story because ultimately Amanda's story is one of hope, survival and forgiveness.  I cried during my two day A House in the Sky binge and got sweaty as Amanda and Nigel suffered at the hands of their captors.

When I finished the book, I sat still in front of my iPad for a few minutes - wanting to absorb the full weight of Amanda's story.  My husband asked, "So how does it end?" and I didn't know what to tell him.  I simply said, "Do you know how strong the human spirit is? We can survive anything.  We just need to convince ourselves that we can."

Monday, December 2, 2013

Eleanor & Park: A Refreshing YA Love Story

It's been awhile since I felt myself falling in love with a YA book . . . falling hard to the point where I didn't want to do anything but read and block out the world.  Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park took me back to when I first fell in love - the awkward, dangerous first moments of romance when nothing else in the world matters but the person of your affection.

Rowell gives her readers so much to love. I rooted for Eleanor, a red headed, slightly overweight, misfit new girl as she braved her first day of school, the horrible bus (before it became not so horrible), and her despicable step-father.  Eleanor's brashness and ability to transcend the pettiness around her rubs off on Park, a quiet Asian kid whose loving family comprised of his Korean war veteran father, Korean mother, and younger but taller brother lives in suburban blissfulness.  His parents still make out (much to Park's disdain).  Park wants nothing more than to be left alone, to lie low under the radar of high school ridiculousness all around him until he falls for Eleanor through their mutual love of graphic novels, music and each other.  Then, he starts to change - getting into fights for Eleanor's honor, wearing a new punk style and not caring what people think or believe about him or Eleanor.

Set in 1986, Rowell's book feels like a John Hughes movie - only better with vibrant and lovable characters who all have heart.  I actually pictured Molly Ringwald in certain scenes as I read this book with her pouty lips and defiant stare; she'd be a perfect casting choice for Eleanor.

Rowell reminded me what falling in love feels like.  I remembered phone conversations with Eric (who is now my husband) that lasted so long we'd fall asleep with the phone pressed to our ears.  I remembered seeing him in the high school hallways and feeling safe and loved and happy and confused all at once.  I remember the evolution of our relationship from a joke to a friendship to something so much deeper (it's still going strong after almost 15 years of marriage and the addition of two beautiful daughters in our lives), and Rowell captures all of those feelings in the 325 pages of Eleanor and Park's romance.

When Park first meets Eleanor, he really just wants her to go away, to stop being such an embarrassment for drawing negative attention to herself.  "He could remember thinking that she was asking for it . . . That it was bad enough to have a face shaped like a box of chocolates. . . He remembered feeling embarrassed for her. And now . . . Now, he felt the fight rising up in his throat whenever he thought of people making fun of her."

Eleanor possesses the ability to free Park from the shadows, and Park possesses an equal ability to free Eleanor from her hardened shell where she has convinced herself that she needs no one because all the people she loves and trusts most violate that trust with neglect and violence.  Park's tenderness and care towards Eleanor melts her and shows her how beautiful love can be, even if she fears needing him.  "She wanted to lose herself in him. To tie his arms around her like a tourniquet. If she showed him how much she needed him, he'd run away."

And the book does involve some running away, but not the kind you'd expect.  None of this book feels expected, false, empty or forced.  Instead it feels like the first moments of love - the real kind - that you lose yourself in because it is so easy and full of happiness even if the world around you feels unkind or confusing.  I can already see this book becoming a movie with a killer soundtrack full of 80s music, and a multi-generational following.  If you know a teenage girl who loves Sarah Dessen or even Veronica Roth books, you need to get her a copy of Eleanor & Park this Christmas.  AND, if you know a 30something 40something woman who grew up in the 80s, you need to get her a copy, too. She'll love you for it.