Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Black Friday Haul: Poetry Edition

Stacking the Shelves is hosted by Tynga’s Reviews. I get to show off all the books I’ve gotten recently. I went a little nuts on Black Friday. Here are the poetry books I got:

Witness – Karen Hesse

The year is 1924, and a small town in Vermont is falling under the influence of the Ku Klux Klan. Two girls, Leanora Sutter and Esther Hirch, one black and the other Jewish, are among those who are no longer welcome. As the potential for violence increases, heroes and villains are revealed, and everyone in town is affected. With breathtaking verse, Karen Hesse tells her story in the voices of several characters. Through this chorus of voices, the true spirit of the town emerges. Witness is a story of poverty and prejudice but, ultimately, of hope and redemption.

Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow – Ted Hughes

Crow was Ted Hughes's fourth book of poems for adults and a pivotal moment in his writing career. In it, he found both a structure and a persona that gave his vision a new power and coherence. A deep engagement with history, mythology and the natural world combine to forge a work of impressive and unsettling force.

Have you read either of these? What did you think?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Discussion: I Have New Year’s Resolutions! Do You?

Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts At Midnight host the 2016 Discussion Challenge.

I’m very goal-oriented. I like to pick a goal, figure out what it takes to reach it, and organize everything so I can get there. I’m also neurotic. Having a task to concentrate on keeps me from pointlessly spinning my mental wheels. That’s why I’m a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. I don’t always accomplish them, but they force me to focus.

So, of course I made some 2017 resolutions for my reading and blogging. I thought I’d share them with you. (You guys can peer-pressure me into following through on them.)

2017 Reading Resolutions

1. Read at least 100 books. I was able to do this in 2016, so hopefully it’ll be possible to repeat it in 2017.

2. Read more nonfiction. I’ve been meaning to do this for years. Some of my favorite books are nonfiction, but I don’t read enough of it. I want to make it a priority in 2017.

3. Stay eclectic. I’m hopelessly attracted to certain subjects (religion, nature, isolation, history, travel, violent death), but I don’t want to get stuck in a reading bubble. How will I find new subjects to obsess about if I stay in my odd little comfort zone?

4. Maybe reread Harry Potter. Cursed Child left a horrible taste in my mouth. I need to get back to the originals. I always feel bad about rereading a series I’ve already read a dozen times. There are so many other books in the world. I love Harry Potter, though!

5. Keep trying to find diversity. Can you believe that way back in 2013, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to “find diverse books”? That’s the year I realized that most children’s book characters are clones of each other. Main characters are starting to become less clone-like, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop looking for diversity.  

2017 Blogging Resolutions

1. Promote small presses. I’d like to start doing Small Press Spotlights where I read a few books from a small publisher and write a post about them. There are two problems with this. First, I can’t afford to pay full price for books, and it’s hard to find small press books at libraries or used bookstores. Second, I feel awkward emailing presses and asking for review copies. If I want Small Press Spotlights to happen, I’ll have to dig deep and get creative.  

2. Promote older posts. There are nearly 600 posts on this blog. The majority of them get no traffic. I might start tweeting some links to older posts.

3. Blogging from A to Z. I want to do the Blogging From A To Z challenge in April. I’ve watched other bloggers do this challenge for years, but I’ve never been brave enough to try it. It involves a lot of blogging.

This may or may not be my graphic for the challenge.

4. Discussion library? Discussions are the most popular posts on my blog. It would make sense for me to organize them in a user-friendly way. Right now, they’re not even tagged under “discussion.” That would be way too logical. I need to put them all in one place.

Those are my New Year’s resolutions. Did you make any?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review: This Side Of Providence – Rachel M. Harper

This Side Of Providence – Rachel M. Harper

Arcelia Perez fled Puerto Rico to escape a failed marriage and a history of abuse, but instead of finding her piece of the American dream, she ends up on the wrong side of Providence. With three young children, Arcelia follows a rocky path that ultimately leads to prison and an agonizing drug withdrawal. But her real challenge comes when she’s released and must figure out how to stay clean and reunite the family that has unraveled in her absence. 
Through rotating narrators, we hear from the characters whose lives and futures are inextricably linked with Arcelia’s own uncertain fate: her charming, street-savvy son, Cristo, and brilliant daughter Luz; their idealistic teacher, Miss Valentín, who battles her own demons; and the enigmatic Snowman, her landlord and confidante.

Review: This review might be a little different from my normal reviews because I usually stay far away from stories about drug addicts. I’ve put up with more than enough crap from addicts in my real life. I don’t need fictional drug addicts in my world, too. I also have a hard time being impartial about addiction books. Sometimes the plots and characters get too close to my real life, and then I start loathing the book for bizarre reasons that actually have nothing to do with the book. So, usually it’s best for me to stay in my happy bubble and pretend that fictional addicts don’t exist.

Why did I put myself through reading this? I wanted to read This Side of Providence because I read the author’s other book, Brass Ankle Blues, last year. I loved the unflinching realism and the attention to detail. Luckily for me, those elements are also present in this book.

This Side of Providence follows a group of people who are living in poverty in Providence, Rhode Island. Arcelia, a Puerto Rican immigrant, is trying to raise her three children while battling a drug addiction. Miss Valentín, a teacher, is concerned that Arcelia’s oldest son, Cristo, is following in his mother’s footsteps. Meanwhile, Snowman—a black man with albinism—is trying to make a difference in a world that doesn’t understand him.

The story is told by rotating first-person narrators. Usually, I have problems with books that have multiple first-person points-of-view because the narrators can sound too similar. But, the narrators in this book are handled brilliantly. They are each very distinct, with different voices, different problems, different hopes for the future. Even though none of the characters are complete “good guys,” I love them all, and there are no POVs that I disliked reading.

Cristo is my favorite character because I can relate to him on a personal level. We’ve been through a lot of the same crap. My situation was never as dire as his, but I still feel like I understand him. He’s so desperate for his mother to get better that he overlooks dangerous warning signs. This is heartbreaking because he’s a child and shouldn’t be taking care of his mother. He’s forced to make difficult choices, and I have complete respect for the decision he makes at the end of the book. I actually had to make the same decision in my life, but I was much older than him when I made it. Addiction is hard on the family of the addict. I kept getting eerie déjà vu feelings from Cristo’s storyline because I’ve been there, done that.  

Rachel M. Harper is good at getting into the minds of her characters. They’ll intrigue you, give you hope, and break your heart at the same time.

Despite my reservations about this book, I’m glad I read it. The writing style is vivid and gritty. The dark side of Providence pulled me in and kept me hooked. This is one of those books that I was still thinking about long after I finished it. If you can handle the difficult subject, I’d highly recommend reading this one.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I Read In 2016

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is top ten best books I read in 2016. I tried to rank them like a proper countdown, but I loved all of these books. They’re all worth reading.

Best Books of 2016

10. Children of the New World: Stories – Alexander Weinstein

Children of the New World introduces readers to a near-future world of social media implants, memory manufacturers, dangerously immersive virtual reality games, and alarmingly intuitive robots. Many of these characters live in a utopian future of instant connection and technological gratification that belies an unbridgeable human distance, while others inhabit a post-collapse landscape made primitive by disaster, which they must work to rebuild as we once did millennia ago.

9. Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things – Jenny Lawson

In her new book, Furiously Happy, Jenny explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. And terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.

8. A Gathering of Shadows – V.E. Schwab

It has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into Kell's possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Prince Rhy was wounded, and since the nefarious Dane twins of White London fell, and four months since the stone was cast with Holland's dying body through the rift—back into Black London. 
Now, restless after having given up his smuggling habit, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks as she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games—an extravagant international competition of magic meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries—a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port. 
And while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night will reappear in the morning. But the balance of magic is ever perilous, and for one city to flourish, another London must fall.

7. Unwind – Neal Shusterman

In a society where unwanted teens are salvaged for their body parts, three runaways fight the system that would "unwind" them. 
Connor's parents want to be rid of him because he's a troublemaker. Risa has no parents and is being unwound to cut orphanage costs. Lev's unwinding has been planned since his birth, as part of his family's strict religion. Brought together by chance, and kept together by desperation, these three unlikely companions make a harrowing cross-country journey, knowing their lives hang in the balance. If they can survive until their eighteenth birthday, they can't be harmed—but when every piece of them, from their hands to their hearts, are wanted by a world gone mad, eighteen seems far, far away.

6. More Happy Than Not – Adam Silvera

In the months after his father's suicide, it's been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again—but he's still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he's slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely. 
When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron's crew notices, and they're not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can't deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can't stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute's revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is. 
Why does happiness have to be so hard?

5. This Side of Providence – Rachel M. Harper

Arcelia Perez fled Puerto Rico to escape a failed marriage and a history of abuse, but instead of finding her piece of the American dream, she ends up on the wrong side of Providence. With three young children, Arcelia follows a rocky path that ultimately leads to prison and an agonizing drug withdrawal. But her real challenge comes when she’s released and must figure out how to stay clean and reunite the family that has unraveled in her absence. 
Through rotating narrators, we hear from the characters whose lives and futures are inextricably linked with Arcelia’s own uncertain fate: her charming, street-savvy son, Cristo, and brilliant daughter Luz; their idealistic teacher, Miss Valentín, who battles her own demons; and the enigmatic Snowman, her landlord and confidante.

4. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. 
Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.

3. A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do. 
But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming . . . 
This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor. 
It wants the truth.

2. Midwinterblood – Marcus Sedgwick

Seven stories of passion and love separated by centuries but mysteriously intertwined—this is a tale of horror and beauty, tenderness and sacrifice. 
An archaeologist who unearths a mysterious artifact, an airman who finds himself far from home, a painter, a ghost, a vampire, and a Viking: the seven stories in this compelling novel all take place on the remote Scandinavian island of Blessed where a curiously powerful plant that resembles a dragon grows. What binds these stories together? What secrets lurk beneath the surface of this idyllic countryside? And what might be powerful enough to break the cycle of midwinterblood?

1. All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel. 
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

What's the best book you read in 2016?

Monday, December 26, 2016

Review: Travels In Vermeer: A Memoir – Michael White

Travels In Vermeer: A Memoir – Michael White

A lyrical and intimate account of how a poet, in the midst of a bad divorce, finds consolation and grace through viewing the paintings of Vermeer in six world cities. In the midst of a divorce (in which the custody of his young daughter is at stake) and over the course of a year, the poet Michael White travels to Amsterdam, The Hague, Delft, London, Washington, and New York to view the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, an artist obsessed with romance and the inner life. He is astounded by how consoling it is to look closely at Vermeer’s women, at the artist’s relationship to his subjects, and at how composition reflects back to the viewer such deep feeling. Through these travels and his encounters with Vermeer’s radiant vision, White finds grace and personal transformation.

Review: Travels in Vermeer was a nominee for the National Book Award in 2015. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, and I even had an opportunity to hear the author give a lecture earlier this year, but I just couldn’t get into this book.

After the death of his first wife and a bitter divorce from his second, poet Michael White finds himself wandering through an art museum. He comes face-to-face with a tiny Vermeer painting that ends up changing his life. He’s so enamored with the painting that he decides to travel the world to see all of Vermeer’s works. Travels in Vermeer blends art and travel with scenes from the author’s life. By studying Vermeer’s art, the author hopes to come to terms with his own string of failed relationships.

I have to start by saying that this memoir is very well-written. I know that the author is mainly a poet, but he’s a talented prose writer, too. I especially like the contrast between the descriptions of artwork and the descriptions of the author’s failed dates. I was just hoping for more from Travels in Vermeer.

The male gaze is strong in this one. The book is about women, but the author and Vermeer are both men. This didn’t bother me at first, but as the book went on, the author’s descriptions of women (both real and painted) started to get off-putting. The author spends a lot of time focusing on women’s appearances and wondering what women (both real and painted) can do for him. He inserts himself into the lives of the women in the paintings. He claims to know what they’re thinking. It comes across as very self-indulgent and quickly turned me against the author/narrator.

Her eyes are matter-of-fact, expectant and unsurprised by my presence in the room. She’s waiting calmly for me to take my seat . . . . . We’re used to each other by now.” – Travels in Vermeer.

I may have been able to forgive the narrator if he had changed by the end of the book, but he seems completely unaware of his self-obsessed, "Everything is for me" behavior. Maybe I would have enjoyed this book if I was a man? As a woman, it just made me sad and irritated. I like to believe that men care about more than just my sexiness. I know it doesn’t always show, but I work really, really hard on my brain.

I also had a difficult time getting through the long-winded descriptions of paintings. They’re beautifully written, but reading about a painting isn’t the same as looking at it. I felt the author’s passion for Vermeer, but the descriptions didn’t spark the same passion in me, so most of the book fell flat. My reading experience with Travels in Vermeer was a mixture of interest, irritation, and boredom.

This book just isn’t for me. I tried.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Sunday Post #77

The Sunday Post is hosted by The Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to recap the past week, talk about next week, and share news. It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date. I get to tell you what I’ve read recently.

Merry Christmas!

On The Blog Last Week

On The Blog This Week

  • On Monday I review Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir by Michael White.
  • On Tuesday I list the best books I read in 2016.
  • On Wednesday I review This Side of Providence by Rachel M. Harper.
  • On Thursday we discuss my New Year’s resolutions.
  • On Saturday I have the poetry edition of my giant Black Friday haul.

In My Reading Life

All the negativity on the Internet has been frustrating me lately, so I’ve been spending less time on the computer. The good part of less computer time: I got tons of reading done. The bad part of less computer time: I’m behind on reviews. Last week, I finished Cold City by Cathy McSporran and My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories by Stephanie Perkins (editor). Then I read Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Right now, I’m reading Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville and The Middle Ages: Everyday Life in Medieval Europe by Jeffrey L. Singman.

In The Rest Of My Life

Five things that made me happy last week:

  1. It’s Christmas!
  2. Chinese food.
  3. Also, Mexican food. (Can you tell that Christmas isn’t exactly traditional around here?)
  4. Making my New Year’s resolutions.
  5. My favorite Christmas song.

Take care of yourselves and be kind to each other. See you around the blogosphere! 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Black Friday Haul: Nonfiction Edition

Stacking the Shelves is hosted by Tynga’s Reviews. I get to show off all the books I’ve gotten recently. I went a little nuts on Black Friday. Here are the nonfiction books I got:

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) – Jenny Lawson

Jenny Lawson realized that the most mortifying moments of our lives—the ones we’d like to pretend never happened—are in fact the ones that define us. In the #1 New York Times bestseller, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson takes readers on a hilarious journey recalling her bizarre upbringing in rural Texas, her devastatingly awkward high school years, and her relationship with her long-suffering husband, Victor.

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War – Steve Sheinkin

From Steve Sheinkin comes a tense, exciting exploration of what the Times deemed "the greatest story of the century": how Daniel Ellsberg transformed from obscure government analyst into "the most dangerous man in America," and risked everything to expose the government's deceit. On June 13, 1971, the front page of the New York Times announced the existence of a 7,000-page collection of documents containing a secret history of the Vietnam War. Known as The Pentagon Papers, these documents had been commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Chronicling every action the government had taken in the Vietnam War, they revealed a pattern of deception spanning over twenty years and four presidencies, and forever changed the relationship between American citizens and the politicians claiming to represent their interests.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood – Marjane Satrapi

Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

The Middle Ages: Everyday Life in Medieval Europe – Jeffrey L. Singman

We consider the Middle Ages barbaric, yet the period furnished some of our most enduring icons, including King Arthur's Round Table, knights in shining armor, and the idealized noblewoman. In this vivid history of the time, the medieval world comes to life in all its rich daily experience. Find out what people's beds were like, how often they washed, what they wore, what they cooked, how they worked, how they entertained themselves, how they wed, and what life was like in a medieval village, castle, or monastery. Contemporary artworks and documents further illuminate this fascinating historical era.

The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir – Ruth Wariner

Ruth Wariner was the thirty-ninth of her father’s forty-two children. Growing up on a farm in rural Mexico, where authorities turned a blind eye to the practices of her community, Ruth lives in a ramshackle house without indoor plumbing or electricity. At church, preachers teach that God will punish the wicked by destroying the world and that women can only ascend to Heaven by entering into polygamous marriages and giving birth to as many children as possible. After Ruth's father—the man who had been the founding prophet of the colony—is brutally murdered by his brother in a bid for church power, her mother remarries, becoming the second wife of another faithful congregant. 
In need of government assistance and supplemental income, Ruth and her siblings are carted back and forth between Mexico and the United States, where her mother collects welfare and her step-father works a variety of odd jobs. Ruth comes to love the time she spends in the States, realizing that perhaps the community into which she was born is not the right one for her. As Ruth begins to doubt her family’s beliefs and question her mother’s choices, she struggles to balance her fierce love for her siblings with her determination to forge a better life for herself.

The V-Word: True Stories about First-Time Sex – Amber J. Keyser (editor)

The V-Word pulls back the sheets on sex. Queer and straight. Relished and regretted. Funny and exhilarating. The seventeen women in this book write about first-time sex—hot, meaningful, cringe-worthy, gross, forgettable, magnificent, empowering, and transformative.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?