Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 in Review

So, if you know me well, you know how much I love Goodreads. I'm not sure how I missed this in the past, but this is the first year I realized that Goodreads has a stats feature where I can review all the books I've read in the past year in neat and pretty bar graphs and organized charts. It really is quite fun to look back over all the books I've read this year and remember my favorites, and I thought it would be nice to do a summary review here.

According to Goodreads, I read 44 books in the year 2013. However, I can think of five books off hand that I didn't review on Goodreads, and I'm hoping there are a few more I can't remember off hand, because I'd like to think that I was a little closer to my book-a-week goal than that. Also, it's interesting for me to look back at the star ratings I gave books, because I think with the benefit of distance I'd change some of my ratings (for some reason, I only gave Sanderson's The Emperor's Soul three stars, but I remember it as being one of my favorites of the year, deserving at least 4 or 4.5). Anyway, in no particular order, here are some of my favorite reads from the year:

*I've linked to all my reviews, but as I only started this blog in May, and as I seem to have read many of my favorites before May, some don't have reviews to link to.

Favorite Favorites:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This is not a book for everyone, but reading it was such a beautiful, pleasurable experience for me. Some of the imagery will stay with me forever.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Another beautifully written book. The characters in this were just incredible. I still can't get over the fact that du Maurier was able to create such a vivid character who was dead before the book even began. Crazy good writing.

Favorite NonFiction

The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens. I'm currently rereading this one right now, and will probably try to reread this once a year if possible. There is just so much good stuff to think about.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barabara Demick. I probably never would have picked this book up if my book club hadn't chosen it, but it was fascinating. Honestly, I couldn't stop talking about this book to everyone I met for about a month. I was that weird annoying person who was randomly obsessed with North Korea, but it was just because this book was so interesting. My husband loved it too, but we're both kind of nerds like that.

Favorite Fantasy

The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson. You guys know how much I love Sanderson, and this slim little novella is honestly one of my all time favorites of his. It's a tight, wonderful little story that kept me thinking about human nature for a long time afterward.

Favorite YA

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Once again, tight story-telling, good characters, elegant writing, mixed with a little fun mythology.

Favorite Series

The Seven Realms Series by Cinda Williams Chima. I actually read this series last year over Christmas Break, but considering I didn't finish the last two books until January, it still counts for 2013, right? This was a fun fantasy YA series, perhaps with a lot of stereotypes, but very well done stereotypes. I really enjoyed it.

Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. This one was a surprise hit for me, but I will say that my most anticipated book of 2014 is that last book in this trilogy (which I believe will be called Cress).

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all my favorites from the year. These are just some highlights, books I remember fondly and would recommend. It's interesting to look back and reflect on my reading choices (I was quite heavy on the YA lit this year, but not many of them actually became favorites) and think about the books I want to read for 2014. But that's a post for the New Year.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My Top 10 All Time Favorite Christmas Books

You want to know what's sad? I don't actually own any of these books.

But nearly all of these are the classic tales I grew up with as a child, and they are the ones I want my kids to grow up with. Luckily, my little boy is too young for most of these right now, so I still have some time to start collecting. But I've got to get to work.

1. The Gift of the Magi This is the classic story from O. Henry that is just beautiful and heart wrenching and I cry every time I read it.
2. The Night Before Christmas At one point in my life I had this whole poem memorized (thank you cheesy Christmas programs in elementary school). But I think it's better told with illustrations, and Jan Brett's have always been a favorite of mine.
3. The Littlest Angel When researching all of my favorite Christmas books, I was surprised when I didn't find this one on any lists I looked at. Do people not know about this book? Because the story of a little angel looking for the perfect gift for the Christ child is completely adorable. This is one of my favorite Christmas books from when I was a kid.
4. The Little Match Girl So, Hans Christian Anderson could be a bit depressing at times, and this story is no exception. Tears everywhere, but I suppose I prefer my Christmas stories to end with tears. Call me morbid.
5. The Tale of Three Trees Another favorite from my childhood. And the great thing about this one is it works for Easter too, and really, all year round. No need to keep this one locked away with the Christmas decorations.
6. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey More tears.
7. How the Grinch Stole Christmas Okay, I know some people love the movie version (or the cartoon version) of this book, but for me this is definitely one of those cases where the book is better (I really don't care for the additional plot lines used to stretch out the movie). Keep my Dr. Seuss pure, please.
8. The Polar Express Another case where the book is much better than the movie. And while I don't particularly care about the "Believe in Santa!" message of this story, the illustrations are just so beautiful. And it's fun. So there.
9. The Nutcracker I took ballet lessons all during my growing-up years, and performed in my company's version of The Nutcracker every December. I'm kind of praying that some day I have a little girl who loves ballet as much as I do, because I will take her to see The Nutcracker every year. In the meantime, it would be nice to have a good illustrated version of this story on hand. And I'm talking about the original version by E.T.A. Hoffman. I know it's a little long (over a hundred pages), but originals are always best.
10. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever This one is also a little longer, and not a picture book. But it's such an adorable book for elementary aged children I couldn't help but put it on here. My mom used to read this book to us every year when we were younger, and it's hilarious and sweet and brings more tears. I'm excited for when I have kids old enough to read this book to.

I know a bunch of people who do advent activities with Christmas books (even wrapping up the books for their kids to unwrap), and I kind of like that idea, but I'd need to find 14 more books to add to this list (although, those last two could be spread out over a couple days). Maybe I should just find two more books and do the 12 days of Christmas. Any suggestions? What are your favorite Christmas books not on this list? (Especially ones about Christ. Just like my movie list, shockingly few of these stories are actually about Christ, which is sad. I would love to find a good Nativity story.)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Book Review: Ruby Red and Sapphire Blue

Ruby Red and Sapphire Blue by Kerstin Gier

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): Gwen’s life has been a rollercoaster since she discovered she was the Ruby, the final member of the secret time-traveling Circle of Twelve. In between searching through history for the other time-travelers and asking for a bit of their blood (gross!), she’s been trying to figure out what all the mysteries and prophecies surrounding the Circle really mean. At least Gwen has plenty of help. Her best friend Lesley follows every lead diligently on the Internet. James the ghost teaches Gwen how to fit in at an eighteenth century party. And Xemerius, the gargoyle demon who has been following Gwen since he caught her kissing Gideon in a church, offers advice on everything. Oh, yes. And of course there is Gideon, the Diamond. One minute he’s very warm indeed; the next he’s freezing cold. Gwen’s not sure what’s going on there, but she’s pretty much destined to find out.

Okay, so judging purely by the covers shown here, these are exactly the
kind of books I would normally skip over. Call me judgy, but I don't do pretty girl in pretty dress covers. It usually means less than stellar writing and lots of fluff. But there I was, drowning in my flu-induced woe-is-me pity party last month, and I just needed something light and fluffy to read after finishing Code Name Verity. Actually, listen to. I was scrolling through my library's available auidobook collection, and both of these books were available for immediate download. I'd heard several people rave about these books, and I wasn't in the mood for serious reading anyway, so it was perfect.

And here are my thoughts. The writing is not terrible. The main character's voice is actually quite fun. Come to think of it, most of the characters were pretty well developed (not sure about the love interest, I don't understand his motivations yet). And the premise (time travel mystery) is unique enough to be interesting. These books were short, action packed, and designed to keep you hanging in suspense. And even if there is a kind of sort of love triangle, it's not the main romantic tension (hallelujah). So these books are fun, clean, fluffy reads that I found very enjoyable. I will certainly be reading the third one just as soon as it becomes available at my library.

Final notes: Apparently these books were written in German first? Which I found confusing because, first, they were obviously translated very well, and second, the setting is London. Also, I understand the title Ruby Red, but I'm not sure about the other gem titles (maybe I wasn't reading carefully, but Sapphire Blue didn't make a lot of sense to me in the context of the story). My final complaint is that this story really wasn't meant to be a trilogy. These two books are very short, and honestly, it should have been released as one longer novel because it's all just one continuous story anyway. These two books did not really have separate plot curves with climaxes and resolutions. They just ended kind of abruptly right after an action scene, and I think it's stupid it had to be a trilogy. But whatever, sell more books that way, okay.

So, solid three star reads. I recommend to anyone looking for some fun easy reading.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Eight Best Christmas Movies of All Time

I am working on a post about my favorite Christmas books because as my son gets a little older, I want to build up our Christmas book collection and develop some sort of Christmas book countdown tradition. But, in thinking about my favorite Christmas stories, I've discovered that most of them are movies. We are movie watching people here, so I'm thinking we're going to have to start a Christmas movie tradition too and get a collection of our favorites that we pull out every year. There really are a lot of great Christmas movies out there (and a lot of terrible ones, maybe that can be a post for another day), but when I think of the movies I'm excited to show my children, these are at the top of my list.

It's a Wonderful Life

A given, am I right? This has got to be the single best Christmas movie of all time. This movie will always have a special place in my heart because of Christmas Eve two years ago. I was alone in a hospital room a day after giving birth to my first child. My baby was in the nursery, and my husband had left to take my family home, and this movie was on TV. My husband came back to find me bawling my eyes out during that ending scene, when everyone's bringing their money in and the bell rings, and you know Clarence got his wings. I was totally postpartum hormonal emotional, and that scene just got me. I haven't been able to watch this movie since without tearing up, and without thinking about the birth of my sweet baby. This one will definitely be a family tradition.

Meet Me in St. Louis

This movie is just classic. If you haven't seen it, rent it. Buy it even. It's just so good and cheesy and fantastic. Strictly speaking, it's not just a Christmas movie (only the end really has anything to do with Christmas), but this is where the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" comes from, so it totally counts. There are so many great songs in this movie, and some of the best child acting I've ever seen (the two little girls are ridiculously cute). Judy Garland actually isn't my favorite (no offense to anyone who likes her) but this family and this story are just adorable.

Joyeux Noel

Okay, so yes, it's a foreign film. And yes, you have to read a lot of subtitles. But don't let that deter you! This is just an incredible movie about possibly one of the most heart-warming moments in World War history, and the fact that it's based on a true story makes it that much more powerful. Even if you know the story of the Christmas truce, this movie is still worth seeing. This one just reaffirms your faith in humanity.

*Warning: This one is rated PG-13, so not entirely family friendly. But still so good.

A Christmas Carol (1984 version)

I know there are a million versions of this story on the big screen, but I've got to give a plug for the 1984 version. This is the one I grew up with, and it was so well done. If you haven't seen this version, look it up. Definitely a classic.

The Muppet Christmas Carol

That being said, younger kids will most likely appreciate this version of Dickens' classic tale more. And I've got to hand it to those Muppets, they really do a fabulous job with the story. This is probably the only Muppets movie that I like, and I really like it. It's hilarious, but also packs the emotional punch of the story. So good.

A Christmas Story

I stand in awe of this movie. Not only does it capture the perfect nostalgia of a classic 1950's Americana Christmas, the humor is so spot on perfectly hilarious it's almost unbelievable. Every scene is classic, every line is quotable, and this one really is a cultural icon. Who can ever forget the leg lamp? Who will ever see a BB gun again without thinking "You'll shoot your eye out"? It really is the perfect funny holiday movie.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Do you know what I love about this movie? I love that it's actually about Christmas. I mean, it's actually about the birth of Christ. It's a message about rejecting the commercialism of the season and really focusing on Christ. What other movie on this list does that? Not one, I'm afraid to say, and that's why I want my kids to watch this one every year. It doesn't hurt that all the Peanuts characters are just awesome in general, and the music is fantastic. Love this little show so much.


Of all the movies on this list, this one is probably my least favorite. I'm just not sure it has the classic staying power of all the other movies here, but my husband loves this movie so much that it will have to be a part of any future family Christmas movie traditions. And I can appreciate that it is a hilarious movie. There are some fantastic quotable lines, and I'm sure my kids will love this one.

Now I realize there are some pretty popular Christmas movies that didn't make it on my list (Home Alone, Miracle on 34th Street, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, just to name a few) and that's not because I don't like them. These are just the ones I want to become part of our family tradition. My question is, am I missing any good ones? Any great Christmas movies out there that should be on this list? What are your favorites?

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Student Mom: The Big News

So, if you remember, I finished my application for grad school a little over two months ago. The deadline wasn't until November 1st, so I waited patiently to hear back.

And waited.

And waited some more.

I've never applied to grad school before, so I'm not sure what the usual turn around time is for a response, but the start date for this program is January 2014. As in, next month. So I was getting a little freaked out about how we were going to pull everything off if they waited much longer to make a decision. And I also kind of assumed that the longer it took, the less likely it was to be an acceptance. I imagined all sorts of scenarios with the acceptance committee where they sat around a table scoffing at my application saying things like, "What does this mom think she's doing? She's clearly completely out of touch with the academic world, that's the worst letter of intent I've ever read!" So I was quietly steeling myself for the disappointment of rejection, and actually getting excited about all of the free time I would suddenly have next year. So what if I got rejected from grad school? Now we didn't have to line up expensive child care and I could write another book. There were definite up sides.

But then, I got an email this week from one of the professors saying, "I would like to congratulate you on your acceptance..."

I was thrilled for about half a second before the panic started to set in. Because now it's real. Now we actually have to pay the tuition, and I actually have to register for classes, and figure out a schedule, and buy books, and find people to take care of my first born child (and deal with the emotional side of that), and mentally wrap my head around the fact that I'm going to be a student again. This is big and this is scary and this is not going to be easy.

But nothing worth doing in life ever is.

(Read the rest of the posts in this series here.)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Book Review: Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity  by Elizabeth Wein

Excerpt (Courtesy of Goodreads): I have two weeks. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do.

That’s what you do to enemy agents. It’s what we do to enemy agents. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and cooperation is the easy way out. Possibly the only way out for a girl caught red-handed doing dirty work like mine — and I will do anything, anything, to avoid SS-Hauptsturmf├╝hrer von Linden interrogating me again.

He has said that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to. But the story of how I came to be here starts with my friend Maddie. She is the pilot who flew me into France — an Allied Invasion of Two.

We are a sensational team.

So, there I was in the middle of November, dreadfully behind in my word count and swearing off reading any more books until I finished my own novel. Then I got the flu. And did absolutely nothing but lie on the couch for six whole days while my offspring watched more television in one week than in his entire previous life (when my husband saw that we were on episode 26 of The Magic School Bus, he asked if we had really watched 13 hours of TV that week. I didn't tell him about all the Curious George episodes we mixed in there). Anyway, sleep wasn't always an option because of all the nasty congestion/hacking cough issues, and so of course I had nothing else to do while my body desperately tried to recover than read. And this book happened to have been sitting on my nightstand since early October, so I thought it as good a time as any to check it out.

And, wow.

Yes, it's another WWII book. I am quite sick to death of WWII books (which is why this one sat on my night stand for so long), so for me to say this is a good book means it is a really good book. Now, it's no Book Thief (another book I judged because it is a WWII novel and then got proved oh so wrong), it doesn't have quite that kind of emotional punch to it, but I still cried at the end. This is a completely different kind of story told in a very unique way, and I really, really liked it.

This is one of those books I should not have read while attempting to write my own novel, because it just highlighted how completely inadequate I am at creating awesome characters (this book has awesome female characters) or framing a story in a unique and engaging way (the way this story is told is just so perfect). Basically, I stand in awe of Elizabeth Wein and her creative genius.

Unfortunately, I have to be rather vague about the specifics of the plot, because I don't want to give anything away. Really, this book is so much more fun if you go into not knowing anything, because in the first few pages you're like, "Is this really happening? Should I be cheering for this character, or hating her?" and then by the end, when you figure everything out, it's just all so awesome. So all I can really say is it's about a fictional female British spy and female airplane pilot in WWII, and it's kind of a thriller but also so much more than that.

So I know that's pretty vague, but just trust me on this one. It's worth your time. I mean, doesn't that excerpt up there just totally intrigue you?

So, briefly, what I can say is that I loved the characters. The two main female characters were both awesome. This was not necessarily a book with a feminist agenda or anything like that, but it nailed how to have awesome strong female leads with no real love interest (hints of one, but only tangentially). Both these girls were just real, and I loved them both. Especially Queenie. Except for her foul language, she's exactly the kind of person I envision myself as being, if I were ever to write myself into an awesome female lead action role.

A few warnings: there is some salty language, and there are some disturbing things described (Nazi torture, it's not pretty stuff), but I would still recommend this one to most high schoolers. Also, there are a lot of technical descriptions of planes and stuff. I can see how that might bore some people, but honestly, I thought it just gave the story a lot of credibility.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The November that Was

Holy cow, it's December now.

November was a lost month to me. These last few weeks slipped past me in a haze of influenza nastiness (seriously people, get your flu shots! I had to learn the hard way, but fortunately everyone else in my family got theirs), holiday travel craziness, and the all-consumingness that was writing a 50,000 word novel in a month. But, speaking of that project:

I did it! I wrote a 50,000+ word novel in one month. True, I didn't finish until 11:15 PM last Saturday after a long flight home from our Thanksgiving festivities, but I did it.

And I have never been so glad to be finished with a project.

In no particular order, here are my likely rather uninteresting reflections about writing a novel in a month:

-No one will ever read this book. It is terrible, and I freely admit that. There were times in the middle of writing this that I was so bored, and hated it so much that I just considered giving up.

-That being said, once it was finished I realized my novel had all sorts of potential. Like I mentioned last time, I'm a discovery writer, which means when I got to my final scene, I had this epiphany about how everything should fit together. The problem was, I should've been building toward that ending through the whole book, but I didn't know the ending until I wrote it. So, that was annoying. In order to get this novel into a readable form, it would take months and months of intensive editing. If writing a novel in the first place was a daunting project, the thought of editing it frightens me to my core.

-This story has all sorts of gaping holes and missing scenes. It wasn't until I was in the shower after submitting my 50,300 final words that I realized I'd forgotten to write the most important scene. You guys, my two main love interest characters NEVER KISS! I had been building up to this kiss scene through the whole book, and then when it got to that part, I just had so much conversation going that I forgot to have them kiss! How stupid and unromantic is that? Like I said, this thing would need some major editing to get into a readable format.

-On a related note, I am not good at action scenes, but I discovered that I love writing dialogue. Seriously, there were multiple times when I was like Hm, I need another 1,000 words before the next action scene, let's have them sit around and talk! And so I'd just start a random conversation and 2,000 words later, I had learned all these new and amazing things about my characters. So I like writing dialogue, but I'm not sure how well that lent itself to the story. Is it boring to read about people sitting around a camp fire talking? Because there is A LOT of that in my novel.

-My writing style is heavily influenced by whatever book I happen to be reading at the moment. I read four books during my whole writing project (reviews are coming, I promise) and with each new book I noticed my writing style would subtly shift to reflect the author I was reading. This really gave me pause, because I think the reason I even chose to write a YA fairy-tale retelling in the first place is because that is what I've been reading so much of lately. I write what I read, which gives me even more reason to be selective about my reading choices in the future. What goes in comes out. If I want to write a great novel, I'm going to need to read great novels.

-I have an entirely new respect for authors. Seriously, I feel bad for some of my past reviews, because my novel? One star if we're being generous. Really, I'm so much more impressed with authors who come up with these creative stories, and then figure out how to tell them in unique and engaging ways. And then actually get them published. I'm completely in awe of the people I know in real life who write books, because it takes a lot of work and creativity.

-I need a break from novel writing, but I absolutely intend to do this again in the future. Maybe not a whole novel in one month, and hopefully with a story and characters that I'm a little bit more invested in, but I will write another book. If this exercise taught me anything, it's that I am capable of writing novels (whether they're actually good is another question entirely).