Saturday, February 17, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover

[I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.] 
Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Memoir, autobiography
Features: Overcoming abuse, importance of education, Mormonism, survivalists, family dysfunction, bipolar

"Vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one's own wretchedness."

"I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it meant to self-create."

I've recently been on a nonfiction kick, and have especially enjoyed memoirs like Glass Castle. Although not as artistically expressed as Glass Castle, the content of Educated was still mesmerizing. Seeing how other people grew up has become one of my recent fascinations, and Westover's childhood was anything but normal. Born into a Mormon survivalist family, the author grows up with a taught distrust of the government and modern medicine. Her mother is an unlicensed midwife and her father a doomsday "prepper." Tara does not receive a formal education until she first enters a classroom at age seventeen, and when she does, she is shocked at what her parents failed to tell her about the world and its history.

I enjoyed this book because the author overcomes so many setbacks to eventually earn a PhD: a crazy family, physical abuse, brainwashing, a lack of education, and her own personal demons. The journey is not easy, but she slowly learns to evaluate things for herself, including religion and the beliefs she was taught as a child. This book is for anyone who believes in the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of thought, no matter your upbringing or setbacks.

This memoir was chock-full of fantastic quotes about self-worth, finding your voice, and seeking truth. Here are a few other quotes that really resonated with me:

"The most powerful determination of who you are is inside you . . . this is Pygmalion . . . She was just a cockney in a nice dress. Until she believed in herself. Then it didn't matter what dress she wore."

"You are not fool's gold, shining under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you . . . You are gold."

"My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs."

"I would never again allow myself to be made a foot soldier in a conflict I didn't understand."

Sunday, January 21, 2018

As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

[I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.] 

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction
Features: Human tragedy, dealing with death and loss, family, love, mankind's resilience

ARCs can be very hit and miss, but this one was definitely a hit! The story follows the women in the Bright family and rotates between the perspectives of the three daughters and the mother. It reminds me of Poisonwood Bible for that reason. The oldest Bright child is mature and intelligent, the middle daughter is strong-willed and determined, and the youngest is more artistic and rebellious. (It also pleasantly brought to mind Little Women, and the sisters Meg, Jo, and Amy.)

The book starts off with the Bright family losing their youngest, an infant baby boy, and moving to Philadelphia for the father to join the family business as undertaker. The family all lives in the house attached the the funeral home, providing a unique perspective into the horrors and harrowing tragedy of the Spanish flu. I'll be honest; I knew embarrassingly little about the Spanish flu before reading this novel. I had no idea how devastating it was. And I think that's what makes this book so beautiful: in a near-apocalyptic world of a fatal illness, people still choose what's good even when it's hard. The mother, for instance, chooses to go feed the sick even if it means catching the flu. She is strong for others--her family and even strangers--even when she's weak. And she's fiercely protective of her daughters: "I do not fear Death for myself, but I will not allow its cold fingers to touch my girls. Not even in a slow caress. They are mine, I whisper."

The tragedy makes the characters re-evaluate their priorities and their humanity, and those who survive the flu have to learn to live after such great loss. How do you rebuild and move forward after so much sorrow? The tragedy shapes each character, and I enjoyed watching them grow through the experience and struggle with difficult choices, and seeing how their stories develop and intertwine: "We only see a little bit of our stories at a time, and the hard parts remind us too harshly that we're fragile and flawed. But . . . your story isn't all hard parts. Some of it is incredibly beautiful."

The perseverance of the human spirit when faced with darkness is truly amazing: "We adjust to [change]. Somehow we figure out a way. We straighten what we can or learn how to like something a little crooked. That's how it is . . . we keep moving, keep breathing, keep opening our eyes every morning, even when the only thing we know for sure is that we've alive."

Overall, this book was stellar: excellent characters, fascinating plot, a sweet romance, and great writing style. I will be looking to read more books by the author.

This book had a number of memorable, beautiful quotes. Here were some of my other favorites:

"This flu is like a black shroud that has been flung across everything that breathes under the canopy of heaven."

 "Our humanity is what made what happened to us so terrible. Without it, nothing matters. Nothing is awful. But nothing is amazing either."

Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017 Recap: A Year in Books

 2017 was a crazy year: lots of change, lots of events, and lots of books. I had originally set my reading goal for 50, but because of the aforementioned craziness, that was not going to happen. I am proud to say that despite it all, I still read 41 books (which is a few more than last year)!! *insert applause here* Here's a list of what I read, what I rated them, and a micro review. I've starred my top books of the year.

1. The Sun is Also a Star - 4/5 stars - A diverse YA page-turner but still a cliche romance.

2. Siege and Storm (Book 2 of Grisha Trilogy) - 4/5 stars - Excellent world building, a superbly crafted villain, and fascinating characters and plot; a refreshingly original fantasy!

3. Ruin and Rising (Book 3 of Grisha Trilogy) - 4/5 stars - Same summation as Book 2, but a little disappointed with the ending.

4. Land of Hidden Fires - 3/5 stars - Historical fiction ARC; unique WWII perspective of German-occupied Norway and strong descriptions, but room for improvement.

5. Milk and Honey - 4/5 stars - Although classified as poetry, read more like prose or memoir; some noteworthy quotes but not superb.

6. Memoirs of a Geisha - 4/5 stars - A fascinating look at geisha and Japanese culture; a very interesting read!

7. A Court of Thorns and Roses - 3/5 stars - An intriguing take on fairies, but too much like a romance novel for my taste; didn't measure up to the hype.

8. *Caraval - 4/5 stars - A real page-turner, carnival-like fantasy with excellent descriptions and interesting characters! Looking forward to the author's next book in the series in 2018.

9. Out of the Silent Planet - 4/5 stars - A classic fantasy read with interesting ideas; a little far-out for my taste and didn't love the audiobook narrator.

10. *Station Eleven - 4/5 stars - Dark and poetic, a super interesting look at a post-apocalyptic world wiped out by a flu virus. Really enjoyed this one!

11. *Mere Christianity - 5/5 stars - C. S. Lewis provides a fresh and fascinating look at major points of the Christian faith.

12. The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness - 4/5 stars - Timothy Keller gives excellent biblical insight (as always) on the title's subject.

13. City of Saints and Thieves - 4/5 stars - A unique and diverse YA thriller set in Kenya with teen gangs and a murder mystery.

14. Passenger - 4/5 stars - Music, pirates, diversity, time travel, and romance--what's not to love?

15. The Weight of Glory - 4/5 stars - Another C. S. Lewis gem.

16. The Night Circus - 3/5 stars - Really unique circus fantasy, but a confusing plot and didn't quite measure up to the hype.

17. The Nightingale - 3/5 stars - German-occupied France during WWII. Interesting but too much tragedy for the sake of emotional manipulation; didn't feel authentic.

18. Selected Poems of E. E. Cummings - 4/5 stars - Very enjoyable with unique imagery and word choice.

19. The Pearl - 4/5 stars - A little novella by the amazing John Steinbeck preaching the dangers of materialism.

20. The Bad Beginning (Book 1, Series of Unfortunate Events) - 3/5 stars - I enjoyed the movie version with Jim Carrey, but overall found this book dark and weird.

21. The Red Pony - 4/5 stars - Another novella by Steinbeck; loved his writing style but didn't really get the overall theme of the story.

22. *Peter Pan - 5/5 stars - An adorable children's story and a superbly narrated audiobook.

23. *The Stranger in the Woods - 4/5 stars - Nonfiction true story of a man who successfully avoids human interaction for nearly 30 years. Utterly fascinating.

24. Sense and Sensibility - 3/5 stars - I've come to the conclusion that Jane Austen is not my cup of tea. 4/6 Austen books read now! (Emma and Mansfield Park left to go...)

25. *In the Heart of the Sea - 4/5 stars - The very fascinating true story of Moby Dick and how the crew survived/didn't survive after their ship was attacked by an angry, vengeful whale.

26. Love and Other Consolation Prizes - 4/5 stars - Historical fiction ARC about a Chinese orphan boy in Washington state; an interesting read with interesting characters.

27. *Gone With the Wind - 5/5 stars - No explanation needed for this books; a long read, but the characters made is worth every page! Probably my favorite book of the year.

28. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - 4/5 stars - Slowly made my way through over half of the Harry Potter books this year; enjoyable!

29. *The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley - 4/5 stars - A father with a criminal past will do anything to right his wrongs and provide a new life for his daughter; a really fun thriller!

30. Finding Peace - 4/5 stars - Charles Stanley gives biblical insight on the title's subject. Not amazing, but still some good truths.

31. *The Meaning of Marriage - 5/5 stars - Timothy Keller blew me away with his biblical and intellectual insight into marriage. Loved this book! Perfect for married and unmarried people alike.

32. A Darker Shade of Magic - 3/5 stars - Points for infusing a fantasy read with creativity, but didn't measure up to what I was hoping or the hype.

33. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - 4/5 stars - Another fun Rowling read!

34. The Sun and Her Flowers - 3/5 stars - Second poetry book by same author as Milk and Honey. Not as good and not impressed; a few noteworthy quotes though.

35. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - 4/5 stars - More Harry Potter fun.

36. Present over Perfect - 4/5 stars - A really refreshing Christian book that reads like a memoir. Very enjoyable.

37. *The Reason for God - 5/5 stars - Timothy Keller wows me again!

38. Orthodoxy - 4/5 stars - An interesting Christian read with fascinating ideas, but a little hard to follow.

39. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - 4/5 stars - More Harry Potter...

40. The Glass Castle - 5/5 stars - An AMAZING memoir about the author's childhood and the trials and hardships she faced. So. Good.

41. You and Me Forever - 4/5 stars - A Francis Chan book on marriage; really good, but didn't agree with everything. Not as good as Keller.

So what's in store for 2018? Well, this is going to sound weird, but I'm planning to set my reading goal lower this year so I have more time for other, healthy habits and hobbies like writing, working out, and spending more time in the Bible. Reading is wonderful, but I need to make time for other priorities as well.

What do I plan to read? I'd like to read more nonfiction, since I read some amazing ones this year and really enjoyed them. I'd love to read more books by Timothy Keller specifically. I've also been slacking on reading classics, partially because they hurt my overall book reading total for the year (yet another reason to reduce my book goal). This year, I want to go for quality of books, not just quantity. Classics usually take longer, and I don't want to dismiss them because I'm trying to read "x" number of books.

So there you have it: 2017 in books.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Genre: Fantasy
Features: Inter-dimensional travel, magic, strong female characters

 "Death comes for everyone . . . I'm not afraid of dying. But I am afraid of dying here . . . I'd rather die on an adventure than live standing still."

"I'm not going to die," she said. "Not till I've seen . . . everything."

What do you get when you mix equal parts magic, inter-dimensional travel, strong female characters, and criminal activity, with a hint of romance? A Darker Shade of Magic, of course! I was drawn to this book because 1) it's been super popular among the Instagram reader community, and 2) there is not one, but four Londons (mega points for creativity, Schwab).

What did I like about this book? Well, the whole premise was highly original. Kell, the main character, can travel between 4 Londons—White London, Red London, Black London, and Grey London. Each London has a different relationship with magic, whether they embrace it, worship it, kill for it, or don't believe in it (not in that order). But Kell and one other character are the only ones able to travel between the Londons, which means they are messengers and ambassadors for the leaders (which leads to some interesting problems).

I also liked that the book wasn't all about romance—there was very little. Lila and Kell worked as a team. The book also dealt with brotherly relationships and caring for family, even if they are not your blood relatives. It also tackled the age-old question of "what do you do if you come into a lot of power, but it's an evil power," which naturally includes character motive investigation, willpower, and self discovery.

However, as with many hyped books, this one fell a little short of my expectations (hence, 3.5 stars). What went wrong? Let me share:

1) Dialogue – I didn't feel like it flowed naturally and was a tad cliche.

2) The Strong/Independent Female Main Character Trope – Lila Bard is a cool character, but I'm just a little tired of the whole tough girl characters who don't need a man or anyone else and don't embrace their uniquely feminine strengths. Why does a girl have to act like a man to get attention in the literary community? Why can't she be feminine and strong? *steps off soapbox*

3) Character/plot originality – Although the premise was unique, much of it felt like other YA lit fantasy that I had read before and that was better executed (e.g., Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows and the Grisha trilogy).

4) World building – I wanted more details. I can never have too much solid world building, and I think it's essential for fantasy to connect with the reader.

Overall, a fun read, but not quite a 4-star rating.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Thriller/General Fiction
Features: Crime, family, strong father/daughter relationships

"Their hearts were all cycling through the same madness—the discovery, the bliss, the loss, the despair—like planets taking turns in orbit around the sun. Each containing their own unique gravity. Their own force of attractions. Drawing near and holding fast to whatever entered their own atmosphere . . .  they would find love and lose love and recover from love and love again."

This was a thoroughly enjoyable book, containing all the essentials for a strong 4 star rating: lyrical writing, well-developed characters, and an engaging plot. The book's plot structure was unique too. The story jumps back and forth between the present with Samuel Hawley and his teen daughter, Loo, to the past with explanations of how Samuel—previously engaged in criminal activity—received his twelve bullet wounds.

What fascinated me about this book was getting into the head of someone who had broken the law and his fight for a relatively normal life and his family. What's it like to run from the law, to always be looking over your shoulder? This book gave me a taste of that. But this book is much more. It explores what happens when a criminal finds love, through a woman who walks into his life one day and their child, Loo. How far will one man go to protect those he loves and to secure a safe, happy life for them?

Overall, it was a really fun and beautiful read, showing the power of love and family despite hardships and past demons trying to squelch it.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

[I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Diversity/Historical Fiction/General
Features: Chinese heritage, romance, older couples 

This book pleasantly surprised me. I wasn't sure what to expect, but the perfect mix of historical events, cultural diversity, sorrow and joy, solid writing, and a touching love story made this book a winner. The characters were well-developed; I really connected with them and rooted for them. I wanted to know that they had happy endings, that the dark times created something beautiful. The plot was well-paced too, and I found myself easily devouring the pages. I loved that the story affirmed that all things happen for a reason, that people and loving others are what matters most, and that good things can come out of bad situations and rock-bottom circumstances.

There were some great quotes too:

"We all have things we don't talk about . . . Even though more often than not, those are the things that make us who we are."

"There are people in our lives whom we love, and lose, and forever long for. They orbit our lives like Halley's Comet, crossing into our universe only once, or if we're lucky, twice in a lifetime. And when they do, they affect our gravity."

"My theory . . . is that the best, worse, happiest, saddest, scariest, and most memorable moments are all connected. Those are the important times, good and bad. The rest is just filler."

The book didn't earn a 5-star in my opinion because some of the situations seemed a little extreme or not realistic, as if the author forced the plot unnaturally to evoke an emotional response. I also felt like the ending was wrapped up a little too neatly and wasn't too realistic.

Overall, this novel wasn't easy to read (some of the content is mature and tragic), but I was glad I read it and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a touching story with a multicultural and historical slant.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: YA lit fantasy/romance
Features: Time travel, pirates, music  

“‘Know this, pirate,’ he said his hands gripping the railing, ‘you are my passenger, and I will be damned before I let any harm come to you.’”

“But she wondered if, in moving outside of the natural flow of time, they had forgotten the most crucial point of life—that it wasn’t meant to be lived for the past, or even the future, but for each present moment.”

“…a flower is no less beautiful because it does not bloom in the expected form. Because it lasts an hour, and not days.”

What do you get when you mixed equal parts time travel, pirates, music, and romance? Passenger, of course! This book had many fresh and interesting ideas that I don’t often see in YA lit, and it had more descriptive language than most books for young adults. I’ve read the reviews, and some people couldn’t get into it because the book seemed to drag. I, however, enjoyed the slightly slower pace and descriptive language. It was refreshing after reading many YA lit books written in present tense and short, choppy language. 

I almost thought of adding historical fiction to the genre listing for this book. Although the book isn’t about a historical event in the past exactly, the main characters do travel through different places and times like colonial America and WWII-era London. This adds a very unique element of conflict to the characters. Nicholas Carter, a main character, is the son of an African American slave woman and wealthy, powerful white man. He faces the prejudice and social constraints of the 1800s placed on Negro men. But because of time travel, a white girl from the 21st century is thrust into his world, which makes for some very interesting and unique relational struggles. Can love overcome society’s laws and expectations? This is much deeper than the source of most tension in YA lit couples. 

I loved that, as a reader, I was thrust into the world of ship sailing and pirates through the eyes of Nicholas, and the world of music through Etta. I found both worlds fascinating and enjoyed the descriptions and terminology unique to each. I’m pleased to say that Alexandra Bracken made her characters interesting, and the romance, for the most part was full of page-turning chemistry.
The questions I had about time travel and the characters, and the electric chemistry between the characters, kept me swiping left (as one does with an e-book). 

However, when I got about two-thirds into the book, the plot started to drag. The character chemistry was not as palpable and the explanations of time travel and the rules of what can/can’t happen and why began to bog down the story. I’ve decided that although I enjoy time travel reads, I’ll just have to accept an inherent element of confusing and unresolvable characteristics that comes with the beast.

Overall, this was an interesting book with dynamic characters and descriptions. Of course, Alexandra Bracken left Book 1 on a cliffhanger, so I’m onto reading Wayfarer now to see what happens to the characters.