Friday, December 28, 2012

my favorite books of 2012

Can you believe it? It's nearly the end of 2012. Just a few days left!

And thanks to a couple of weeks of frantic reading (no complaints!), I finally accomplished my Goodreads goal of reading 50 books this year. It's a new record for me, and especially exciting since my original goal was only 30. When I accomplished that goal in August, I upped it to 45 and somewhere along the way, it got upped again to 50. 

Of those 50 books, there were: 
  • 23 general fiction
  • 14 nonfiction
  • 6 young adult
  • 4 classics
  • 3 children's books

And thankfully, the year ended on a really high note. Three of my Top 10 books of the year are from these past two weeks. 

Just when I was afraid I'd grown too critical of novels and my standards were unattainably high, I found and read three fantastic books that reminded me why I love reading so much. :-)

RENEE'S TOP TEN READS OF 2012






The Phantom Tollbooth
By Norton Juster
Date Finished: January 11, 2012
Somehow, I never came upon this book as a kid. After hearing friends rave about how much they loved it when they were little, I gave it a shot this year. And I'm so glad I did. Although I still wish I'd read it as a child first, its cleverness and humor make it a great book for all ages. It does just what a children's book should: it encourages both thoughtfulness and laughter.





The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
By Maggie O'Farrell
Date Finished: May 10, 2012
Maggie O'Farrell was a great new discovery for me this year. I read three of her novels and enjoyed them all, but Esme was my favorite. In all of O'Farrell's novel, the plot is nonlinear and includes multiple POVs. Although the stories themselves are not very complicated, the way information is revealed creates twists that make the stories compelling and beautiful.



Steve Jobs
By Walter Isaacson
Date Finished: June 27, 2012
I love my Macbook and my iPod, but I'm neither a tech geek nor a huge Steve Jobs fan. But I knew Jobs was an interesting guy and I'd heard this biography presented both sides of his fascinating personality. He was an uncompromising, brash, rude, emotional, "insanely great" visionary. Even though this book was 500 pages long and I'm not all that interested in computers, I really loved it and you can't deny that Jobs really changed the way we interact with computers. 



The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
By Douglas Adams
Date Finished: August 13, 2012
This book fulfilled my every expectation. It was very funny, very smart, and very weird. It's great for a laugh, and you'll finally understand what people mean when they say the answer to life, the universe, and everything is . . . 42. Plus, it moves quickly and it's not very long. If you haven't read it and you're looking for something light and fun, Douglas Adams has you covered.





Gone Girl
By Gillian Flynn
Date Finished: August 18, 2012
It was the blockbuster book of the summer and for good reason. It's the tale of a very twisted marriage, beginning with wife Amy's disappearance on the couple's anniversary. I've heard the movie rights have been bought and in all likeliness, most of your reader friends have already devoured it. So do yourself a favor and read it before you hear the twists without reading the book first. It's a crazy ride.



 The Little Prince
By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Date Finished: August 20, 2012
Just like The Phantom Tollbooth, I wish that I had read this first as a child. But in any case, it's a great book that stands the test of time. This French classic is about a little prince who lives on a little planet caring for a flower. But it's so much more than that. It's about life and purpose and how, too often, adults get carried away with things that aren't really so important.


The Fault in Our Stars
By John Green
Date Finished: September 20, 2012
I'm not a Young Adult fan usually, but this book was great. I'm also not a fan of books about cancer patients, but John Green proved me wrong. Augustus and Hazel's love story is believable and sweet, even if we know it won't all be jokes and video games and traveling. This book is the perfect mixture of tragedy, romance, and humor.



The Age of Miracles
By Karen Thompson Walker
Date Finished: December 19, 2012
If I had to pick a favorite, I think I would pick The Age of Miracles. It's the story of how humans react when the Earth's rotation begins to slow. But at the same time, it's a coming-of-age story about 11-year-old Julia and her friendships, family, and crushes. Beautifully written, the perfect length, the perfect ending, realistic, sad, lovely, memorable. A fantastic book.




 A Visit from the Goon Squad
By Jennifer Egan
Date Finished: December 23, 2012
I wasn't sure about this book going in (I knew there was a chapter written entirely in PowerPoint, clearly a cause for concern), but it really grew on me. The plot is loosely carried along by 13 different characters who are all connected to the music industry and each other. The two main characters (I think?) are Bennie, a successful music producer, and Sasha, his assistant. The writing is fantastic and despite the numerous changes in POV and plot, it was always intriguing and easy to follow. Every character had an interesting story and yet all the stories also meshed together into a wonderful whole.



Where'd You Go, Bernadette
By Maria Semple
Date Finished: December 26, 2012
Another very fun read. Light and quirky and written largely in letters, e-mails, and notes. Just before a family trip to Antarctica, Bernadette Fox disappears and her daughter, 15-year-old Bee, must find out what happened to her. When I heard that the author, Maria Semple, used to be a writer for the TV show Arrested Development, it made perfect sense with the crazy/funny plot and characters. If you're looking for something fun but also very different, pick up Bernadette.


* * *

If you haven't heard of them, look them up. If they're on your to-read list, move them to the very top of your list for 2013. They truly are that great.

What were your favorite books of the year? What do you hope to read next year?


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

where'd you go, bernadette

Just before a family trip to Antarctica, Bernadette Fox disappears and her daughter, 15-year-old Bee, must find out what happened to her. Bernadette is a former architect living in Seattle with her husband, Elgin Branch, a genius who works for Microsoft. Their daughter, Bee, is extremely bright and on her way to boarding school in the fall. Bernadette is a bit crazy, relying on a virtual Indian assistant for daily tasks and always annoyed with the "gnats" (moms) of the other children children at Bee's school. But why has she disappeared?

A light, fun, quirky read. Written largely in letters, e-mails, and notes. When I heard that the author, Maria Semple, used to be a writer for the TV show Arrested Development, it made perfect sense. The characters are that perfect blend of crazy and funny.






TITLE: Where'd You Go, Bernadette
AUTHOR: Maria Semple
PUBLICATION DATE: 21 December 2012
DATE FINISHED: 26 December 2012
VERDICT: 4/5 stars. Very much recommended.


*P.S. If you want to know my one complaint with the book (and you've already read it, of course), visit my Goodreads review for a spoiler.

a visit from the goon squad

I wasn't sure about this book going in (I knew there was a chapter written entirely in PowerPoint, clearly a cause for concern), but it really grew on me. The plot is loosely carried along by 13 different characters who are all connected to the music industry and each other. The two main characters (I think?) are Bennie, a successful music producer, and Sasha, his assistant. The writing is fantastic and despite the numerous changes in POV and plot, it was always intriguing and easy to follow. Every character had an interesting story and yet all the stories also meshed together into a wonderful whole. 

My only critique is more of a personal preference. I like novels to have a plot line that includes some sort of rise and fall in the action. Because this was more like 13 short (but very connected) stories, there wasn't anything carrying the story along. The last story tried to give the novel a clear, concise ending that joined everything together, but it felt TOO clear and concise. Like the author had suddenly realized that she needed to string the characters, stories, and plot lines into something more conclusive.

The overall mood does connect the stories, but that wasn't enough for me. Most of the stories include someone acting badly (doing drugs, having affairs, stealing, etc.), time, regret, youth, and success/failure. My favorite chapters were #1 (Sasha), #3 (Rhea), #4 (Rolph, Charlene, Lou), #12 (Alison), and #13 (Alex). I also really enjoyed when the story veered into the future, with ideas about how people will someday interact with phones, music, advertising, etc. 

TITLE: A Visit from the Goon Squad
AUTHOR: Jennifer Egan
PUBLICATION DATE: 8 March 2010
DATE FINISHED: 23 December 2012
VERDICT: 4/5 stars. Very impressive and entertaining. Even the PowerPoint chapter works.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

the age of miracles

On a seemingly ordinary Saturday morning, 11-year-old Julia wakes up from a sleepover to the news that the Earth's rotation has begun to slow. No one knows why, but in that moment, life on Earth changes forever.

For a time, things are fairly normal. Families begin stocking up on foods, and (although the sunrise and sunset fall at odd times) people still follow the sun in their waking and sleeping schedules. Clocks are ignored. But as "the Slowing" increases, more change is necessary. People react to the news in very different ways. Some follow the government's recommendation to follow "clock time" (ignoring the sunrise and sunset), for the sake of order and timeliness. Others refuse and will only wake with the sunrise and sleep with the sunset (though this grows difficult when the length of a day surpasses 40 hours). 

Other changes happen as well. Birds begin falling from the sky. Whales beach themselves on the coast near Julia's Californian suburban home. Some people develop an unexplained sickness due to the Slowing's effect on gravity. Others experience mysterious emotional changes, becoming more impulsive and hasty. 

And we read it all through the eyes of quiet, sweet Julia. She's very concerned and curious about the Slowing, but like all children, she's still busy with passing the 6th grade. Her observations about the sun, the birds, the grass, etc., are mixed in with everyday adolescent troubles: shaky friendships, bullying, crushes, loneliness, parents fighting.

This was a beautiful, haunting, moving read. I truly loved it from start to finish. Everything about it just felt right. 

I loved Walker's simple but rhythmic writing style. I loved the combination of science and adolescence, both uncertain and mystifying. I loved Julia, who reminded me very much of myself as a preteen. I loved the length, and how I never felt bored even once. I loved the beginning, and I loved the ending too. 

TITLE: The Age of Miracles
AUTHOR: Karen Walker Thompson
PUBLICATION DATE: 26 June 2012
DATE FINISHED: 19 December 2012
VERDICT: 5/5 stars. Just beautiful. Very highly recommended. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

the snow child

This is a beautifully told story. It is the story of a childless married couple, too old to have children now, who live alone together in the wilderness of Alaska in the 1920s. He farms and she maintains the homestead. Their life is lonely and sad until, one day, it snows and they build a little snow child in their front yard. Soon after that, they begin seeing a girl. A blond, wild, shy, sprite of a girl that runs through the trees with a red fox. She is more of an animal than a girl, and it takes a lot of patience and persistence before the girl allows them to welcome her into their hearts. Their names are Jack and Mabel, and the girl changes their lives and makes them feel like the parents they were never able to be.

Their story echoes that of a Russian fairy tale that Mabel read as a girl. In it (just like in the novel) an old couple without children constructs a girl out of snow. And suddenly afterwards, a girl appears. In the years that follow, the girl always comes with the snow and leaves when spring arrives. Mabel remembers the story and, when the girl arrives at their cabin, seems to believe in it. Her convictions cause her neighbors and husband to believe she might be mad with "cabin fever."

As I said, the story is beautifully told. The prose is rhythmic, lovely, and filled with the spirit of Alaska. The author is a native Alaskan and it shows in her knowledge of the freezing winters, the rampant wildlife, and the strength of the people who lived there alone decades ago. I loved the prose and the story was magical and unique. Plus, it was perfect for a good Christmastime read.

However, I also think that the story was simple enough that it didn't deserve 386 pages. It's an interesting story, certainly, but 386 pages is a little excessive. Not to mention the fact that the plot of the novel is revealed pretty early on in the story of the Russian folk tale that Mabel remembers from her childhood (so there are no great surprises or revelations).

I originally gave this 4 stars, thinking that it was more of a 3.6 and I would round up. But I've decided since that it's more of a 3.4, and should be rounded down. Although I thought it was beautifully done, it wasn't a novel that I really connected with or loved. I think it will resonate more with older women and mothers who can really relate to Mabel, the main character. Sometimes the book felt a little old to me, just because of Mabel and her personality. I did love Jack (her husband) and the snow girl, but the narrator for the majority of the story is Mabel and I just couldn't connect with her and her greatest desire (a child to love).

I would definitely recommend this book to older women, and maybe some younger readers too. Mostly I just hope that Ivey continues to write because I would love to read her next novel.


TITLE: The Snow Child
AUTHOR: Eowyn Ivey
PUBLICATION DATE: 1 February 2012
DATE FINISHED: 18 December 2012
VERDICT: 3/5 stars. Beautifully written but not meant for me.


source

Thursday, December 13, 2012

my favorite christmas songs

I'm one of those people who listens to Christmas songs all year round (sparingly, but still). They always put me in a good mood and get me excited for the holiday season, however far away it might be. 

So I'm always thrilled once Thanksgiving passes and the rest of the world agrees that it's time to bust out the Christmas spirit. And naturally, I have a lot of holiday songs in my iTunes library. My Christmas playlist is 76 songs long :O 

I've whittled that down to a more manageable number, but I still had to include a back-up list so that I wouldn't neglect any favorites. I also tried to include a number of less popular songs, so that even if you're a connoisseur of the classics, you might still find a new song to play this holiday season.

Happy holidays!


MY FAVORITE CHRISTMAS SONGS

P.S. The top 3 are my absolute favorites, but the rest are in no particular order.

FAVORITES
Winter Wonderland by Ray Charles
Carol of the Bells (so many great versions-- I love them all!)
All I Want for Christmas Is You by Mariah Carey
Christmas Time Is Here by the Vince Guaraldi Trio for "A Charlie Brown Christmas"
White Christmas by The Drifters
Somewhere In My Memory by John Williams for "Home Alone"
White Christmas by Otis Redding
What Christmas Means to Me by Stevie Wonder
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by Michael BublĂ©
All Alone on Christmas by Darlene Love
Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town by Bruce Springsteen
Sleigh Ride by KT Tunstall
Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms
Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses
Baby It's Cold Outside by Dean Martin & Doris Day
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee
Auld Lang Syne by Guy Lombardo

BACK-UPS

Christmas Vacation by Mavis Staples for "Christmas Vacation"
O Tannenbaum by the Vince Guaraldi Trio for "A Charlie Brown Christmas"
What's This? by Danny Elfman for "The Nightmare Before Christmas"
(Everybody's Waitin' For) The Man With the Bag by Kay Starr- Thunderball Remix
Christmas Lights by Coldplay
Fairytale of New York by the Pogues
Frosty the Snowman by Fiona Apple Please Come Home for Christmas by Southside Johnny
Winter Song by Sara Bareilles & Ingrid Michaelson
Donna & Blitzen by Badly Drawn Boy
Santa Claus by Harry Connick, Jr.

What are your favorite Christmas songs? And if it's a classic, who do you prefer to hear singing it?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

cloud atlas


This is a confusing book to describe, but I'll give it a shot. 

The novel encompasses six different stories, each set in a different time and place. Each story is linked to the next through story/sound, but also through the main characters, who are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies through time (this is only hinted at through a birthmark, shaped like a comet, that all the characters share). The stories are told one a time until we get to the sixth, when we turn around and revisit each story in reverse chronological order. So it goes like this: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1. These are the stories:

1. Adam Ewing in the Chatam Islands in 1850. Ewing is a notary aboard a ship. His story deals with his illness (treated by his friend Dr. Goose), the island tribes, missionaries, and slaves.

2. Robert Frobisher in Zedelghem, Belgium in the 1930s. Frobisher is a recently disowned (and therefore, quite poor), bisexual musician from England who travels to Belgium to find work with the composer Vyvyan Ayrs.

3. Luisa Rey in Buenas Yerbas, California in 1975. Luisa is a journalist who happens upon a great story about an unsafe nuclear power plant. As she digs into the story, the corporation that owns the power plant chases down everyone trying to let out the story.

4. Timothy Cavendish in London and Hull, England in the present-day. Timothy is a publisher fleeing the brothers of an awful client. His own brother tricks him and he ends up trapped in a retirement home, though he immediately begins plotting a break-out.

5. Sonmi~451 in Korea sometime in the future. Sonmi is a fabricant (clone) working in a fast food chain. She becomes involved with an underground movement to liberate fabricants, allowing them to learn and live like other humans.

6. Zachry in a primitive post-apocoloyptic society in Hawaii in the far future. A more sophisticated group of people, the Prescients, leave a woman of their own kind to stay in Zachry's home so that she can learn about his community. Through her, Zachry learns more about the past and what led to their present society.

And the stories are connected like this: Zachry hears the orison (sound recording) of Sonmi~451, who watches a movie about Timothy Cavendish, who receives a novel manuscript about Luisa Rey, who reads the letters and listens to the musical composition of Robert Frobisher, who reads the journal of Adam Ewing. 

It is clearly a complicated structure, but Mitchell weaves everything together beautifully. The stories are connected through themes as well, including slavery, falling/rising, the number 6, and dominance/property. 

But I'm most impressed by Mitchell's ability to capture so many different voices, personalities, settings, and genres. Each character has a distinct personality and a voice that reflects their time and place in the world. Reading Adam Ewing's section is comparable to reading Herman Melville, the style old-fashioned and formal. Reading Sonmi~451's section, there are unfamiliar words and terms (movies are called disneys, for example), and it is in the style of an oral interview. Reading Zachry's section, the language breaks down into a new dialect. For example, he says: "I stayed a whiles an' visited Pa's icon, an' seein' his face carved in the grain I seen his face lyin' in Waipio River. Oh, hot tears o' shame'n'sorryin' brimmed out" (263). 

Mitchell is able to convey drastically different, but believable voices throughout the novel. And not only that, but each story is very different in tone. There are Adam Ewing's old-fashioned and formal diary entries, Robert Frobisher's casual and confessional letters, Luisa Rey's suspenseful action story, Timothy Cavendish's comedic break-out, Sonmi~451's solemn dystopian tale, and Zachry's dramatic oral story in broken-down English. I was tremendously impressed with Mitchell's ability to move so seamlessly between these very different genres and voices.

However (and I hate to say this) . . . I just wasn't very interested in most of the stories. I kept getting bored, but I read on in the hope that I would get pulled in. Yet even when I did get pulled in, my enthusiasm would only last until the end of the section, when I had to leave the current characters and join the next. With six very different stories, it makes sense that readers would connect with some sections and not others. Personally, I liked Robert Frobisher and Sonmi~451's stories best (likely because I love historical fiction and dystopian stories). Adam Ewing's was my least favorite, but Timothy Cavendish's seemed the most unnecessary.

I really appreciated the structure and writing, but it didn't work for me. I'd prefer to pick up Robert Frobisher and Sonmi~451's stories on their own (in separate, more detailed novels). 


TITLE: Cloud Atlas
AUTHOR: David Mitchell
PUBLICATION DATE: 2004
DATE FINISHED: 10 December 2012
VERDICT: 3/5 stars. Impressive but uneven and sometimes uninteresting.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

ttt: top ten new-to-me authors of 2012


This week's Top Ten Tuesday on the Broke and the Bookish is Top Ten New-To-Me Authors. It's been a great year for reading, and I'm happy to say that I easily filled the ten slots and then overflowed into three more. So many great books by very talented authors. Can't wait to read more of each and every one of them.



TOP TEN TUESDAY:
Top Ten New-To-Me Authors of 2012


1. Maggie O'Farrell (I read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, The Hand That First Held Mine, and After You'd Gone). O'Farrell has quickly become one of my favorite authors. She writes beautifully and I love the way she paces her novels, slowly revealing secrets and trusting the reader to figure things out on their own. 

2. Haruki Murakami (I read Norwegian Wood) He has so many well-loved books that I feel like I've only scratched the surface. I'm hoping to get to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle very soon.

3. John Green (I read The Fault in Our Stars) I loved The Fault in Our Stars, despite the fact that I'm not much of a YA reader and the idea of a book about kids with cancer immediately turned me off. I love how he handled the sensitive material with humor and honesty. Also, he's a great author to follow on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. He and his brother are famous for their YouTube videos. Plus, he just really seems to care about his readers.

4. Neil Gaiman (I read Coraline, and I also watched the Doctor Who episode he wrote and listened to his fabulous commencement speech). Again, I've only just scratched the surface of this much-loved writer. I can't wait to read one of his adult books soon.

5. Mindy Kaling (I listened to the audiobook of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?). Very funny and the perfect car-ride companion. 

6. Gillian Flynn (I read Gone Girl). The blockbuster book of the year and for good reason. Flynn was brilliant with her twists and turns and overall craziness. I hope her other books are as fun!

7. Liza Klaussmann (I read Tigers in Red Weather). This book lost me at the end, but I loved the lead-up and think Klaussmann's clearly very talented. This is only her debut novel, so I hope she continues to write. I'll definitely look for her in the future.

8. Joe Dunthorne (I read Submarine). Dunthorne is clever and very funny in that subtle, sarcastic British way. I saw him reading at a very small book festival in Greece and he was fantastic.

9. Norton Juster (I read The Phantom Tollbooth). One of my favorite books of the year, for sure. Juster is smart, clever, funny, and basically perfect as a children's book author. Read this book if you haven't, and give it to your children once they're able to read chapter books. It's sure to be a favorite.

10. Douglas Adams (I read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). Another funny-man. So glad I finally got around to reading him this year.

11. Lionel Shriver (I read We Need to Talk About Kevin). Very adept at creating interesting, dark, despicable characters but in a very believable way. 

13. Donna Tartt (I read The Secret History). Such a dark, brilliant, crazy book. I've heard Tartt's other book (she only has two) isn't as great, but I hope she's continuing to write. Or maybe she should just write the screenplay for The Secret History!

14. David Mitchell (I read Cloud Atlas). I had some mixed feelings about Cloud Atlas, but regardless, I think Mitchell is amazing. Weaving together six different stories, creating historical voices and futuristic tongues, and unique personalities for each main character . . . quite the feat. I hope to read Black Swan Green next year.

What authors did you discover this year? Or who are you hoping to read soon?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

ttt: books i wouldn't mind santa bringing me

This week's Top Ten Tuesday on the Broke and the Bookish is Top Ten Books I Wouldn't Mind Santa Bringing Me. As I've mentioned before, I'm a big library supporter (and I'm also very cheap) so just about everything I read has been borrowed from the library. However, once I've read a book and loved it, I like to have my own copy. So it goes without saying that I love all the books listed below. They're favorites that I'm sure to pick up again someday.


TOP TEN TUESDAY:
Top Ten Books I Wouldn't Mind Santa Bringing Me


1. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (Okay. This is the one book on the list that I haven't read, but I'm so sure that I'll love it, I'm daring to put it on my Christmas list anyway.)

2. On Writing by Stephen King.


3. The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes. Review here.

4. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Review here.


5. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell. Review here.

6. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters.


7. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Review here.

8. Little Children by Tom Perrotta.


9. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Review here.

10. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Review here.


What books are on your wish list?




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