Friday, January 30, 2015

Best Books of January

Here are the best books I read this month. The summaries come from Goodreads.

Moral Disorder: And Other Stories – Margaret Atwood

Atwood triumphs with these dazzling, personal stories in her first collection since Wilderness Tips. 
In these ten interrelated stories Atwood traces the course of a life and also the lives intertwined with it, while evoking the drama and the humour that colour common experiences — the birth of a baby, divorce and remarriage, old age and death. With settings ranging from Toronto, northern Quebec, and rural Ontario, the stories begin in the present, as a couple no longer young situate themselves in a larger world no longer safe. Then the narrative goes back in time to the forties and moves chronologically forward toward the present.

In “The Art of Cooking and Serving,” the twelve-year-old narrator does her best to accommodate the arrival of a baby sister. After she boldly declares her independence, we follow the narrator into young adulthood and then through a complex relationship. In “The Entities,” the story of two women haunted by the past unfolds. The magnificent last two stories reveal the heartbreaking old age of parents but circle back again to childhood, to complete the cycle.

By turns funny, lyrical, incisive, tragic, earthy, shocking, and deeply personal, Moral Disorder displays Atwood’s celebrated storytelling gifts and unmistakable style to their best advantage. This is vintage Atwood, writing at the height of her powers.
Review: This collection of linked short stories chronicles the life of a woman named Nell. The stories aren't in chronological order, but they begin with Nell's childhood and continue until she is in her 60s.

I'm a huge fan of Margaret Atwood. She might be my favorite author ever, but I didn't like this book as much as her others. A few of the stories seem very dull. There is a lot of telling and not much doing in some of them. Nothing really happens. I'm not sure if the stories went over my head, or if I'm just used to stories with more action, but I got bored with several of them.

Fortunately, the majority of the stories are great. I loved the ones about Nell as a child and as an older woman who is taking care of her parents. I also loved the ones about the animals on the farm. The title story, "Moral Disorder," is the stand-out for me. It tells the story of how Nell and her almost-husband, Tig, accumulate (and lose) their farm animals. It's the perfect mixture of deep and hilarious. I haven't read a short story that I enjoyed that much in a long time.

I would highly recommend all of Margaret Atwood's books. I think she's one of the best modern writers. Nobody develops characters, writes description, or evokes emotion like she does. Her books are amazing.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard – J.K. Rowling

The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a Wizarding classic, first came to Muggle readers’ attention in the book known as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Now, thanks to Hermione Granger’s new translation from the ancient runes, we present this stunning edition with an introduction, notes, and illustrations by J. K. Rowling, and extensive commentary by Albus Dumbledore. Never before have Muggles been privy to these richly imaginative tales: “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot,” “The Fountain of Fair Fortune,” “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart,” “Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump,” and of course, “The Tale of the Three Brothers.” But not only are they the equal of fairytales we now know and love, reading them gives new insight into the world of Harry Potter.
Review: This is a quick, cute, fun read. It's only about 100 pages, and the margins are huge, so I got through it very fast. The book is a collection of wizard fairytales from the Harry Potter universe. If you've read Harry Potter, most of the tales and characters will be familiar.

There's not much to say about this book because there's not much to the book. The stories are clever, and I loved Dumbledore's commentary. I especially liked that Dumbledore talked about how the stories changed or were censored over time. That made them more realistic because there are dozens of versions of real-life fairytales. It's interesting that wizard fairytales are the same.

Mostly, these stories made me miss Harry Potter. Now I want to go reread those.

The profits from this book go to a wonderful charity. It's worth buying just for that.

A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams

It is a very short list of 20th-century American plays that continue to have the same power and impact as when they first appeared—57 years after its Broadway premiere, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those plays. The story famously recounts how the faded and promiscuous Blanche DuBois is pushed over the edge by her sexy and brutal brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. Streetcar launched the careers of Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden, and solidified the position of Tennessee Williams as one of the most important young playwrights of his generation, as well as that of Elia Kazan as the greatest American stage director of the ’40s and ’50s.
Review: It’s my New Year’s resolution to read more plays. I started out with a Shakespeare play, but it reminded me of horrible high school English classes, so I switched to this one.

A Streetcar Named Desire tells the story of a mentally unstable woman, Blanche, who is tormented by her brother-in-law, Stanley.

I hate every character in this play. Stanley is a terrible person. Blanche is annoying. Stella refuses to see what is right in front of her. None of them are people who I’d want to know in real life. However, I enjoyed reading about them. I read this play straight through without putting it down because I needed to know what happened next. These awful people are pretty fascinating. It takes a talented author to make me want to read about un-relatable characters. This play is impressive.

My favorite line: “I don’t want realism. I want magic. Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it.”


All The Things = 8 books (The lowest it’s been in years!)

I’m Currently Reading = What is the What? By Dave Eggers

Friday, January 16, 2015

Best Books for Young Adults 2014

Here are my top-five favorite young adult books that I read (or reread) last year:

5. Battle Royale – Koushun Takami

Koushun Takami's notorious high-octane thriller is based on an irresistible premise: a class of junior high school students is taken to a deserted island where, as part of a ruthless authoritarian program, they are provided arms and forced to kill one another until only one survivor is left standing. Criticized as violent exploitation when first published in Japan - where it then proceeded to become a runaway bestseller - Battle Royale is a Lord of the Flies for the 21st century, a potent allegory of what it means to be young and (barely) alive in a dog-eat-dog world. Made into a controversial hit movie of the same name, Battle Royale is already a contemporary Japanese pulp classic, now available for the first time in the English language.
Review: Battle Royale isn't literature. There's not much depth to it. A lot of the characters are underdeveloped. It could use some more world building. The violence is unrealistic. It's slightly predictable. It's the textbook definition of pulp fiction.

And it's awesome. I've wanted to read this book for years, ever since I heard that it was inspired in part by Stephen King's work. It didn't disappoint. This story has a familiar plot: a bunch of fifteen year olds are put on an island and told to kill each other, but it's different enough from other books with that plot to be interesting. My favorite element of the book was the POV switches. We get to learn about a lot of the characters and why they chose to participate or not participate in the game.

A lot of people have been comparing this book to The Hunger Games. Battle Royale has more gore and less politics. There are a lot of characters (over 50, I think), and the majority of them die. We get to see the bloody details of almost every death. A lot of gunshots, a few stabbings, a poisoning, some falls from high places, a hatchet in the face, that kind of thing. There is a lot of action, a lot of plot twists, and at least one death every few dozen pages.

If you have a strong stomach, time to read 600 pages, and a love of intense books, I'd recommend this one.

If I had to find things to complain about, the translation would be at the top of my list. I wish I could read Japanese. I have a feeling that this book is much better in its original language. There were a few times, especially at the end, where I had to reread to make sure that I understood what was happening.

Another thing that I would complain about is the number of characters. There are a lot of them, and some of them have similar names (Yukie, Yuko, Yuka, Yukiko, Yumiko). It can be hard to remember who is doing what.

Finally, Kazuo's bulletproof vest annoyed me. Bulletproof vests aren't that bulletproof. The more you shoot them, the less effective they become. Kazuo got shot a ton of times and never seemed to be too bothered by it. Actually, both Kazuo and Shogo seemed unrealistically prepared for the game.

Even with the complaints, I enjoyed this book. I'm glad I finally got a chance to read it.

4. Fat Kid Rules the World – K.L. Going

Troy Billings is seventeen, 296 pounds, friendless, utterly miserable, and about to step off a New York subway platform in front of an oncoming train. Until he meets Curt MacCrae, an emaciated, semi-homeless, high school dropout guitar genius, the stuff of which Lower East Side punk rock legends are made. Never mind that Troy's dad thinks Curt's a drug addict and Troy's brother thinks Troy's the biggest (literally) loser in Manhattan. Soon, Curt has recruited Troy as his new drummer, even though Troy can't play the drums. Together, Curt and Troy will change the world of punk, and Troy's own life, forever.
Review: The 5 stars are for Curt. He is a fascinating and complicated character. I really appreciate that a drug addict/criminal character is written so complexly. He isn't just a semi-homeless drug addict, he's also a punk rock god, a friend, and a realistic human. He's not a "bad guy" or a cautionary tale. The author just let him be himself. That's awesome.

The book's narrator, seventeen-year-old Troy, is a self-conscious fat kid. He meets semi-homeless Curt while trying to come up with an un-funny way to commit suicide. Curt immediately decides that Troy will be the drummer in a new punk rock band, even though Troy doesn't know how to play the drums.

The book is very well-written and has some funny moments. The characters behave like realistic teens and twenty-somethings. The plot is a little slow, and Troy is not as complex or interesting as Curt, but Curt more than makes up for all of that. The book is worth reading just for him.

3. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will be busier still. 
By her brother's graveside, Liesel's life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger's Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. 
So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever there are books to be found. 
But these are dangerous times. When Liesel's foster family hides a Jewish fist-fighter in their basement, Liesel's world is both opened up, and closed down. 
In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.
Review: The narrator, Death, tells the story of an orphan, Liesel Meminger, and several families living outside of Munich during WWII.

This is by far the best book I've read this year (so far). It's the kind of book that makes you sit in stunned silence for a few seconds after finishing it. The story is a familiar one, but the writing is poetic and beautiful. There were several times where I stopped and reread sentences or whole paragraphs because I liked them so much. This is some of the most interesting writing I've ever seen in a young adult book. The strangeness of the language totally fits Death, the strange, nonhuman narrator.

I do understand the negative reviews that this book gets. It's experimental, the narrator is extremely intrusive, the writing draws attention to itself, the book is hard to read quickly, and the story isn't anything new. However, none of that bothered me. I thought this book was fascinating.

2. Burned – Ellen Hopkins

I do know things really began to spin out of control after my first sex dream. 
It all started with a dream. Nothing exceptional, just a typical fantasy about a boy, the kind of dream that most teen girls experience. But Pattyn Von Stratten is not like most teen girls. Raised in a religious—yet abusive—family, a simple dream may not be exactly a sin, but it could be the first step toward hell and eternal damnation. 
This dream is a first step for Pattyn. But is it to hell or to a better life? For the first time Pattyn starts asking questions. Questions seemingly without answers—about God, a woman's role, sex, love—mostly love. What is it? Where is it? Will she ever experience it? Is she deserving of it? 
It's with a real boy that Pattyn gets into real trouble. After Pattyn's father catches her in a compromising position, events spiral out of control until Pattyn ends up suspended from school and sent to live with an aunt she doesn't know. 
Pattyn is supposed to find salvation and redemption during her exile to the wilds of rural Nevada. Yet what she finds instead is love and acceptance. And for the first time she feels worthy of both—until she realizes her old demons will not let her go. Pattyn begins down a path that will lead her to a hell—a hell that may not be the one she learned about in sacrament meetings, but it is hell all the same. 
In this riveting and masterful novel told in verse, Ellen Hopkins takes readers on an emotional roller-coaster ride. From the highs of true love to the lows of abuse, Pattyn's story will have readers engrossed until the very last word.

Review: When sixteen-year-old Pattyn starts questioning her religion and disobeying her abusive father, she is sent to live with her aunt on a rural cattle ranch. On the ranch, Pattyn meets an older boy who changes her life forever. Burned is written in a mixture of formal and free-verse poetry.

This book is intimidating because it's written in verse, and it's a thick book. Don't be intimidated. The poems are very easy to understand, and the plot is pretty simple. The book is actually a quick and entertaining read. 

I had a hard time finding things to criticize, but a lot of people criticize this book because of its portrayal of Mormons. There are abusive families, abusive communities, and abusive churches within every religion. This book is not about Mormons. It's about Pattyn and her experience as a member of an abusive religious community. I thought the author did an accurate job of showing religious abuse.

Even though this is a book of poetry, it has all the elements of a great novel: complex characters, an intriguing premise, suspense, action, fast pacing, romance, and a twist ending.

I already knew about some of the twists because I read reviews before buying the book, but there are so many twists that you won't see all of them coming. This is a very interesting book. I can't wait to read the next one in the series.

1. Bridge to Terabithia – Katherine Paterson

Jess Aarons' greatest ambition is to be the fastest runner in his grade. He's been practicing all summer and can't wait to see his classmates' faces when he beats them all. But on the first day of school, a new girl boldly crosses over to the boys' side and outruns everyone. 
That's not a very promising beginning for a friendship, but Jess and Leslie Burke become inseparable. Together they create Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods where the two of them reign as king and queen, and their imaginations set the only limits.
Review: This was one of the books that changed my life as a child. I just reread it as an adult for a grad school essay, and I still love it. It's probably one of my favorite books of all time. It's an entertaining story with relatable characters for children, but it also has a lot for adult readers to think about. The book explores the issues surrounding poverty vs wealth and innovation/change vs tradition. It shows how some parents relate differently to female children and male children. It shows the difficulties of male/female friendship in elementary school. It confronts issues about gender and how society believes that boys and girls should behave. Best of all, it shows that imagination is important, fears can be conquered, and belief in yourself is essential.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Best Books for Grown-Ups 2014

If you saw my post last week, you know that I mostly read young adult books, but I did read some great fiction for grown-ups last year. Here are my top-five favorites:

5. Swamplandia! – Karen Russell

The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline — think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades — and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the World of Darkness.

Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve year old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.
Review:  A family of alligator wrestlers goes on a quest to save their island theme park and themselves. Chief Bigtree, the father, is delusional about the future of the park. Ossie, the older sister, needs to get to the underworld to marry a ghost. Kiwi, the older brother, is trying to survive on the mainland. Ava, the younger sister, is left alone in the swamp with the creepy Birdman.

This book started weird and ended terrifying. It was definitely a strange story. The setting was one of the most vivid settings I've ever read. The setting had its own backstory. The characters were complex, unusual, and interesting. My favorite character was Kiwi. I loved his horrible name and huge ego. The plot was crazy and unexpected: I didn't see that ending coming. The writing was beautiful and quirky.

My only complaint was the pacing. It felt like it took me forever to get through the book. The story floundered in places and didn't feel like it was going anywhere. I was just reading for Kiwi and the author's amazing writing. Those things weren't really enough to keep me going, and several times I considered putting the book down and reading something else. The ending also felt slightly rushed.

This story makes you think about the murky space between the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. I'm glad that I didn't give up on it. Despite its pacing, this was a wonderful, dark, and messy book.

4. Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

In a voice more powerful and compassionate than ever before, New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Strout binds together thirteen rich, luminous narratives into a book with the heft of a novel, through the presence of one larger-than-life, unforgettable character: Olive Kitteridge. 
At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer’s eyes, it’s in essence the whole world, and the lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human drama–desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love.

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.
Review: This collection of linked short stories centers around Olive Kitteridge, a retired math teacher and the mother of a grown son. The stories examine Olive from every angle. She is the main character in some of them and briefly mentioned in others, but they all show the impact that one woman can have in a small town.

Olive is a complex and fascinating character. She is big, loud, blunt, and opinionated. She is self-centered, abusive, judgmental, unkind, and manipulative. She refuses to apologize for her mistakes. She eavesdrops and talks behind people's backs. Many of her students were afraid of her. She is independent, strong, funny, and in control. She is amazingly perceptive and willing to help anyone who needs it. She loves her husband and son fiercely. She is a very realistic human.

Like most short story collections, I did get bored with a few of the stories. I also felt like a few of them went over my head. The author was saying something deep that I wasn't quite getting. However, the majority of the stories are brilliant. This book is entertaining and beautifully written. 

The stand-out stories for me are "Pharmacy," "A Little Burst," "A Different Road," "Ship In A Bottle," and "Security."

In "Pharmacy," Olive's husband develops a crush on the plain and unassuming (completely opposite of Olive) young woman who works for him in his pharmacy.

In "A Little Burst," Olive's only son gets married to a woman who Olive does not like, and she finds small ways to make the woman's life difficult.

In "A Different Road," Olive and her husband are held hostage in a hospital bathroom by a gunman, but the argument that they have while trapped in the bathroom is the most traumatizing part of the experience. I love the humor in this story. It's tied with "Security" as my favorite in the collection.

In "Ship In A Bottle," an eleven-year-old girl knows where her older sister (one of Olive's former students) has gone, but she doesn't tell her crazy mother.

In "Security," Olive goes to visit her son for the first time in years and ends up causing trouble in the airport security line.

I have to warn you that many of the stories in this collection are depressing. The characters' emotions are raw and realistic. But, if you don't mind that, this is a great collection.

3. Close Range: Wyoming Stories – Annie Proulx

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling author of The Shipping News and Accordion Crimes comes one of the most celebrated short story collections of our time.
Annie Proulx's masterful language and fierce love of Wyoming are evident in these breathtaking tales of loneliness, quick violence, and the wrong kinds of love. Each of the stunning portraits in Close Range reveals characters fiercely wrought with precision and grace. 
These are stories of desperation and unlikely elation, set in a landscape both stark and magnificent -- by an author writing at the peak of her craft.
Review:  These stories are realistic, gritty, beautiful, and amazing. Having grown up in Colorado, I was familiar with the setting of this book, but I've never seen it described this well. Annie Proulx has a gift for using language precisely. I can see why she has won so many literary prizes.

All of these stories are about tough Wyoming ranchers. None of the characters are likable, but most of them are fascinating because of their flaws. The most well-known stories in the collection are "The Half-Skinned Steer," which was featured in the anthology Best American Short Stories of the Century, and "Brokeback Mountain," which became a movie.

"Brokeback Mountain" is the strongest story in the collection. I also liked "The Mud Below" because it seemed more straightforward and less sparsely-written than the other stories. I liked the humor in "The Blood Bay." I had a hard time picking favorite stories because I liked them all. This is one of the best short story collections I've read in a long time.

2. Different Seasons – Stephen King

A collection of four novellas by the bestselling master, three of which became the basis for the hit films Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and Apt Pupil. So varied in tone that you have to compare King to Twain, Poe-with a generous dash of Philip Roth and Will Rogers thrown in. -Los Angeles Times
Review: This book contains four of King's most famous novellas: "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," "Apt Pupil," "The Body," and "The Breathing Method." Most people are familiar with these stories because all but "The Breathing Method" became movies. My favorite story was "Apt Pupil." The tension was amazing. I flew through it. I had to find out what happened next. My second favorite story was "The Body" because the young characters are more realistic than the young characters in many other books. I also love the movie "Stand By Me," which was based on "The Body." My least favorite story was "The Breathing Method." It felt like it took a long time to get going, but the end was great (and bloody). Overall, I think that some of King's best writing is in these novellas.

1. The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister's death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura’s story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.
Review: Ten days after the end of World War II, Iris's sister, Laura, drove Iris's car off a bridge. Now, fifty years later, Iris is telling the story of what really happened to Laura.  
I don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading this book. I've read almost all of Margaret Atwood's books, and this one is now one of my favorites. This book totally deserves its Booker Prize. Only a massively talented author could write a book with a structure this intricate. Margaret Atwood also develops characters better than any other author I've ever read. This book is long (643 pages), but it felt as if the plot moved faster than the plots in some of Atwood's other books. I really enjoyed it.

Friday, January 2, 2015

My 2014 Book Statistics

I kept statistics for the books I read in 2014. Here they are (complete with graphs).

Reading goal for 2014: read at least 52 books

Total books read in 2014: 72

Total pages: Approx. 24,537

Longest book: 904 pages

Shortest book: 96 pages

Average book: 340 pages

Youngest book: first published in 2014

Oldest book: first published in 1815

My Average star rating: 3.76 out of 5

Reading goal for 2015: read at least 60 books 

Breakdown of total books (72) by genre

Breakdown of total pages (24,537) by genre

Breakdown of total books (72) by publishing method