Friday, August 30, 2013

game of thrones

I'm a big fan of the "Game of Thrones" TV series but until recently, I had no interest in reading the "Song of Ice and Fire" books. They're all like a thousand pages long, I figured, and there are so many characters to keep straight. Plus, when the TV show's so good, why do I need to read the books?

But when season 3 ended a few months ago and I was still eager for more, I decided the books might be worth a shot. Although the length was still intimidating and I already knew the plot and characters from watching the TV show, I'm happy to say that I really enjoyed this first book. To be honest, I assumed the writing would be bad. I never read fantasy and I made an uninformed assumption. But I like the writing and I love the complex world Martin has created. Although it did get a little boring occasionally (because I always knew what was coming), I really liked getting a more in-depth look at the characters. Mostly though, I'm glad that I now have a better understanding of the plot. Despite being a big fan of the TV show, I'll admit that I'm often confused. There are just so many characters to keep track of! Now that I've read the book, I (pretty much) feel like I know who everyone is, how they're connected, their history, and their motivations. 

Although I'll probably wait awhile (since this book took me about 3 weeks to finish), I definitely plan to continue reading the series. 

TITLE: Game of Thrones
AUTHOR: George R.R. Martin
PUBLICATION DATE: August 1996
DATE FINISHED: 20 August 2013
VERDICT: 4/5 stars. Loved it. I'm excited to read the rest of the series.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

summer songs

Just for fun, I thought I'd post a playlist of some of the songs I've been loving this summer. I think I'll make this a new seasonal feature because I don't know about you, but I love it when friends and bloggers post their current favorite songs. I listen to music everyday while I work and it's easy to get stuck in a rut.



What are your favorite songs of the summer?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

the goodreads average user rating

First of all, I have to brag for a moment. :-)



Apparently I'm in the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads. Woot woot! They don't explain exactly what that means, but I assume it has to do with the percentage of books I've reviewed. Whatever the case, I was glad to hear it because I do love Goodreads. Plus, it's a good lead-in to something I've been wanting to discuss . . .

Assuming you have a Goodreads account, have you ever looked at your average rating score?

If you don't know what I'm talking about, I don't blame you. It's a fairly unobtrusive feature. Beneath each user's profile picture, there are statistics listed including number of ratings and number of reviews. Just beside a user's rating count (to the right of it), you'll find that user's average rating in parentheses. And if you click on it, you can even see your rating frequencies. My ratings break down like this:

  • I've given 5-stars to 16 books (that's 4% of my rated books)
  • I've given 4-stars to 74 books (or 21%)
  • I've given 3-stars to 161 books (46%)
  • I've given 2-stars to 71 books (20%)
  • I've given 1-star to 24 books (6%)

That makes my average rating 2.96 stars. 

my new bookshelf!

So when I saw that, I got to thinking . . . Since I'm below 3 (the average rating for books), does that mean I'm a critical reader? Am I too harsh? Or, am I choosing too many so-so books? It's close to the median rating, of course, but as I clicked through my Goodreads friends' scores, I noticed that most of them have a much higher average rating, usually above 3.5. What does that say about me (and about them)?

Of course, you also have to consider that Goodreads has a skewed rating system. Instead of making 3-stars the "okay" or "average" score, 3-stars means "I liked it." The run-down goes like this: 1-star (I did not like it), 2-stars (it was okay), 3-stars (I liked it), 4-stars (I really liked it), and 5 stars (It was amazing). I know I'm not the only one that has a problem with this rating system. It's limited and would probably work much better with either more stars (9 stars? 10 stars?) or half-stars. Although I have 161 books all rated 3-stars, I don't think that I would rank them all at the same level.

Since my score is between 2 and 3, that means I rate most books between "okay" and "good." That sounds accurate, but it would certainly be nice if I could rate more books above 3 stars. Maybe I need to rethink my strategy for choosing books . . .

Anyway, I'd love to hear what your Goodreads average rating is and what you think of it. Are you 4+ stars and love every book you read? Or are you below 2 and very hard to please? Do you think the Goodreads rating system works well? I'd love to know your thoughts.

P.S. I promise I'm not over-thinking this! I'm just a very organized person who loves thinking about statistics, scores, lists, etc. :-)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

swamplandia!

The Bigtrees are alligator wrestlers who run a theme park on an island in Florida. After mother Hilola dies of cancer, Swamplandia! hits hard times and the family copes in various ways. Kiwi, the brother, runs away to nearby Loomis County to raise money and get an education. Chief Bigtree, the father, goes to the mainland on an extended business trip. Osceola, the older sister, runs away with her lover (who is, I should mention, a ghost), and younger sister Ava journeys into the Underworld of the swamp to bring back her sister. 

With its crazy premise and lively setting, I was prepared to love "Swamplandia!" It's gotten a lot of praise in the literary world and I've heard wonderful things about Karen Russell's short story collections. Unfortunately, it didn't live up to the hype for me. Although the introduction to Ava, her atypical family, and their island home was enticing, I quickly grew bored. I wish that a big hunk had been chopped out of the middle, when nothing seems to be happening, especially on Ava's end; Kiwi's sections were far more interesting to me. Plus, it was difficult to read about Ava's trip with the mysterious Bird Man because she seemed so naive and he seemed so creepy. I knew something bad was bound to happen, and I was frustrated that Ava didn't realize it too. Finally, part of what drew me to the book was the magical realism element, the idea that Osceola is really in love with a ghost, so I was disappointed that Osceola and her ghosts are only a side story and absent for much of the novel (and not really written in the style of magical realism). 

I considered giving this three stars simply because I loved the setting, the concept, the characters, and some of the writing, but ultimately I knocked it down to two. The plot was too frustrating and drawn-out for a positive review. However, because I really liked Russell's ideas and writing, I am excited to get to her short story collections soon.


TITLE: Swamplandia!
AUTHOR: Karen Russell
PUBLICATION DATE: February 2011
DATE FINISHED: 19 July 2013 
VERDICT: 2/5 stars. Great concept and characters, lackluster story.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

sharp objects

Camille Preaker, a crime reporter for a small Chicago newspaper, is sent back to her hometown in southern Missouri to cover the murder of two young girls. Fresh from a stay at a psychiatric hospital (she used to cut), Camille isn't quite ready to face both the gruesome murders and her own troubled family. Her neurotic mother doesn't seem to care for her, her stepfather is a stranger, and she's baffled by her popular thirteen-year-old stepsister. As Camille searches for the murderer, she must also confront her relationship with her family, her late sister's death, and her own psychological troubles.

Similar to Dark Places and Gone Girl because of its Missouri setting, central female character, disturbed family, and murders/disappearances, Sharp Objects is another great read by Gillian Flynn. It's fairly short and reads quickly, though I would ward off any readers uncomfortable with dark subject matter. With the murders, Camille's cutting, and many bleak instances of drug use, alcoholism, sex, violence, etc., it's not a book for the faint of heart. 

Even though I like dark novels, certain situations in this were uncomfortable to read about (mainly the lawbreaking/wickedness committed by underage characters)  and I didn't love the constant references to Camille's scars. I think the "words" were used too often and felt like too blatant an effort (like the author was trying too hard to be clever/poetic). But I loved trying to figure out the murders, which were wonderfully mysterious and intriguing, and I liked the small-town, gossipy feel of Camille's hometown. Although I prefer Dark Places overall, I did really like Sharp Objects and found the ending especially satisfying.

TITLE: Sharp Objects
AUTHOR: Gillian Flynn
PUBLICATION DATE: September 2006
DATE FINISHED: 29 June 2013
VERDICT: 4/5 Dark (sometimes too dark) but very entertaining.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

life update

Reading in the park (the book is Dark Places).

It's been a little quiet around here lately, but I think I have a worthy excuse this time. For the past month, my life has been a whirlwind. Not only have I moved across the state (back to my college town), but I'm now living with my wonderful boyfriend, starting to feel more like a true adult, and (most importantly) working my first full-time job. I don't want to go into too many details, but I will say that my new job title includes the word writer (a fact that makes me very, very happy). It's been an amazing, stressful, exciting transition that unfortunately leaves me much less time for reading, writing, and blogging. However, I'm trying to catch up on my reading (I'm 2 books behind on my yearly goal according to Goodreads) and I really want to get back into blogging.

My boyfriend (he's reading Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).

That's all for now. Just wanted to give a quick update. :-)

And while I'm here, I have to ask:

What are you reading? What have been your favorite summer reads so far? I just finished Dark Places, which I loved (review coming soon!), and started Swamplandia! this morning. Despite its mixed reviews, I'm hopeful!


Sunset from the balcony of my new apartment.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

the angel's game

Prequel to the wonderful Shadow of the Wind, The Angel's Game is another dark, literary mystery set in Barcelona. The story revolves around David Martin, a young man with a troubled upbringing who dreams of being a writer. With a lot of help from his friend/protector Pedro Vidal, he rises up in the newspaper world and then signs a contract with a publishing company. A true lover of the written word, David becomes consumed with his work. He is obviously a great writer, but his contract forces him to write a certain type of novel and he isn't given any time to relax. He's also in love with Vidal's chauffer's daughter, Christina, though she rebuffs all his advances. David is overworked and unhappy. Then, he is offered a large sum of money to write a book for an enigmatic French publisher, Andreas Corelli. But of course the agreement isn't quite what it seems . . .

Although this is technically a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind, it's really just a story involving some of the same characters. You don't need to read this to read Shadow of the Wind or vice-versa. 

I really love Carlos Ruiz Zafón's writing style, largely because his joy for the craft shows through. He writes in an old-fashioned, Gothic, dramatic sort of style. Very cinematic, really, with lots of descriptions and overly elaborate settings. The dialogue can be overly quippy and clever, and sometimes characters talk aloud to themselves for dramatic effect. Usually these things would bother me, but I enjoyed it because Zafon clearly loves it and has a lot of fun with it. And it works very well with the plot, which is full of mystery. You never quite know what's going on behind the scenes, though you know that something's not right with Corelli and his deal. 


I was really enjoying it up until the end. After waiting so long for a clear explanation of the mysteries, I never got an answer. I've been reading some of the discussion questions and answers (at the bottom of the book's Goodreads page) and I think I have some sort of idea of what happened now, but many elements of the plot still perplex me. Because of this, I only gave the book 3 stars. I enjoyed The Shadow of the Wind much more than this. However, I am really excited to read the next book in the trio, The Prisoner of Heaven.


TITLE: The Angel's Game
AUTHOR: Carlos Ruiz Zafón
PUBLICATION DATE: April 2008
DATE FINISHED: 22 June 2013
VERDICT: 3/5 stars. Intriguing but left me baffled.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

case histories

Investigator Jackson Brodie has been hired to look into three separate cases:

#1- In 1970, a very young girl, Olivia Land, disappears in the middle of the night. 


#2- In 1979, a single father's beloved daughter Laura is stabbed at her new job by a man in a yellow sweater.


#3- In 1997, an overwhelmed young mother reaches her breaking point, with nightmarish results.

My expectations were high for this and while I did still enjoy Atkinson's writing (and look forward to reading more), the plot really lost me. We start with those three case histories, which are very intriguing and mysterious. I was immediately excited to get lost in the cases (and couldn't help but think of Gillian Flynn, whose books I've been reading and loving lately). But then Atkinson started to lose me. We spend a lot of time in the minutia of everyday life, following Jackson's troubles with his ex-wife and daughter, Olivia's sister and her unhappiness, a puzzling woman named Caroline who lives in the country, and others. We don't really get a chance to delve into the mysteries. Very few details come to light, making it impossible for readers to solve the cases by picking up clues. And after (mostly) just following the various characters and their struggles, the book ends by going back to the case histories and explaining what happened. While I was really relieved that we did get to hear those nitty gritty details at some point (I hate when mystery stories are left unsolved!), there wasn't a sufficient build-up to the big reveal.

TITLE: Case Histories

AUTHOR: Kate Atkinson
PUBLICATION DATE: 17 October 2005
DATE FINISHED: 1 June 2013
VERDICT: 3/5 stars. Just disappointing. But since I'm still excited to read more of Atkinson (and am kind of considering reading Jackson Brodie #2- One Good Turn), it wasn't a complete botch.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

ttt: favorite book covers


This week's Top Ten Tuesday on the Broke and the Bookish is Top Ten Favorite Book Covers.

And like, well, just about everyone, I'm guilty of judging a book by its cover. If a book has a striking or interesting or just plain pretty cover, I'll inevitably pick it up. My screening process is more rigorous than just a glance at the cover (I always check the Goodreads average rating and never read books with a score below 3.5 stars), but a charming cover is still worth quite a lot. Not only does a cover make me pick up a book, it makes me want to love the book and want show it off to reader friends.

In no particular order, here are some of my favorites.

And not only are these books beautiful, they're great reads as well!

TOP TEN TUESDAY
Top Ten Favorite Book Covers


review


review




review

review




What are some of your favorite book covers? Did the book inside match the beautiful cover?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

ttt: light and fun books

This week's Top Ten Tuesday on the Broke and the Bookish is Top Ten Books When You Need Something Light and Fun. And you know what I learned?

I don't read light and fun books.

Well, I do, of course, or I couldn't write this list, but amongst the dozens of books I read each year, light and fun books are rare. I had to do some very careful scanning of my Goodreads bookshelf before I was able to find ten books that are even worthy of the adjectives light and fun.

It's not that I don't like light and fun books. I do (especially when they're as good as the ten listed below!). But I do prefer darker, more mysterious reads. That said, if anyone has any light and fun book recommendations, I would be thrilled to hear them. I'm clearly not an expert.




TOP TEN TUESDAY:
Top Ten Light and Fun Books


1. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (by Douglas Adams). Hilarious and very clever. It's a classic for a reason.

2. Anna and the French Kiss (by Stephanie Perkins). Despite some issues with the logistics/characters, I was completely charmed with this story of a girl in Paris.

3. Where'd You Go, Bernadette (by Maria Semple). One of my favorite books I read last year. Funny, quirky, full of charm and wit. Loved it.

4. Let's Pretend This Never Happened (by Jenny Lawson). This is the only nonfiction book on the list. It's a memoir and it's absolutely hilarious. One of my favorite books of this year.

5. How I Became a Famous Novelist (by Steve Hely). An outlandish look at the publishing industry and what makes a book good vs. what makes it popular.

6. I Capture the Castle (by Dodie Smith). There are some dramatic moments, but when I think of this book, I think mostly of the pretty sisters, their old castle of a house, their crazy (and often nude) stepmother, and their romances with the cute neighbor boys. It's not completely light, but it's definitely fun.

7. Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone (by JK Rowling). Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!

8. The Princess Diaries (by Meg Cabot). Awkward teen Mia finds out she's a princess. If that doesn't qualify as light and fun, I don't know what does.

9. Submarine (by Joe Dunthorne). Very charming and funny. The story of a strange British boy trying to figure out his first relationship, his parents' relationship, and the rest of his life.

10. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (by Sherman Alexie). A combination of very sad (and heavy) and very fun (and light). It's the story of a boy trying to balance his life on an Indian rez with his new life as a student at a rich all-white school. It even includes cartoons!



What are your favorite light and fun reads?

Monday, May 6, 2013

book fair finds



Every year my hometown has a big book fair in April, but I've missed it the past four years because I was away at school. But not this year! Last week I hit up the sale (which is so big, it's held in a mall parking lot!) and walked away with an armful of great reads.

I've read (and obviously really enjoyed) half of my finds:

1. Little Children by Tom Perrotta
2. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
3. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
4. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

And the other half, I've just heard really good things about (and at $1-2, couldn't pass up):

5. Kafka at the Shore by Haruki Murakami 
6. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
7. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
8. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

By the time I was through, my arms were sore! That's either an indication of (1) a successful hour of book buying, (2) weak girly arms, or (3) the need to bring a grocery bag next time. Or in my case, all three.

I'm thrilled I was able to find so many great books, and I only paid about $10 total! 

The only frustrating part about it is that when there are so many tables of books (haphazardly split into basic sections like fiction, nonfiction, cooking, travel, etc.), it's impossible to carefully consider every book. You can walk slowly through the aisles and scan your eyes across all the spines, but you never know what you might miss in a moment of distraction. For example, I was really hoping to find some books by Kate Atkinson, but I'm not very familiar with the spines/fonts/designs of her books, so even if they were there, my eyes probably skipped right past them. 

If I had my way, the books would be organized both by section and author. So I could head on over to the A section in fiction and check it more carefully to be sure I wasn't missing Atkinson. 

Anyone else get frustrated with book fairs because of the disorganization? It's kinda like vintage shopping or going to garage sales. You never know what you're missing! But at the same time, I suppose, when you do find something, it's like you've struck gold. You get that feeling of accomplishment, like you've really worked to find that book.


Have you read any of my new books?

Which should I read first?


Thursday, May 2, 2013

tiny beautiful things: advice on love and life from dear sugar

I love advice columns and am a loyal follower of Dear Prudence (on Slate.com), but Sugar is my new favorite. 

While most advice columns follow the rules of propriety and logic, Dear Sugar is about the heart. She (Sugar a.k.a. Cheryl Strayed) seems to genuinely care about each and every letter-writer. So much so that often, she writes about her own life in her responses (exposing many intimate secrets in the process). This makes her advice unique, but the other reason her column is unique (and a large part of the reason I enjoyed this book) is that both her letters and her responses are very well written. She is clearly not a psychiatrist; she is a writer with a lot of experience, love, and wisdom. And as she says in a FAQ (nestled within the letters and advice, the book features a few short sections of FAQs with Sugar), the reason the letters she publishes/answers are so well-written is that, amongst the hundreds (thousands?) of letters she receives, those that are thoughtful and written with care are the most likely to stand out and make the cut.

The questions vary widely: there is a father whose gay son has died; there is a bride-to-be wondering if we can expect our spouses to be forever faithful; there is a writer suffering from jealousy; a writer fearing that she will never publish a book; a graduate who feels stifled by his student loans; several girls who want and fear breaking up with their longtime boyfriends; an unattractive man who fears he will never find true love; etc. No, you won't identify with every writer, but I'm certain that at least one will make you sit up straight and think about your own life a little. And even when I couldn't imagine what the writer was going through (like those revolving around motherhood, death of a close loved one, or abuse), their stories were interesting and Sugar's advice expands beyond that writer's small, singular problem. 

You should also know going into this that Sugar has a very unique voice. I realize this is wrong, but sometimes I imagined her as an old drag queen. That's the kind of voice she has (in my head): sassy, maternal, calm, wise, confident. She frequently uses endearments like "sweet pea," but she also likes to curse. 

And I love that Sugar doesn't write from a place of superiority. Instead of saying "It is wrong to ___ and you need to do better than that," she says "It is wrong to ____, but it happens to all of us. It even happened to me. But you must try to do better than that." She frequently exposes her own flaws and mistakes, while at the same time maintaining that (though it's hard--sometimes it even seems impossible), it's important to try to be your best self. Step into the other person's shoes. Act from a place of empathy. Be magnanimous. Don't worry so much. Trust that things will work out. 


TITLE: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
AUTHOR: Cheryl Strayed
PUBLICATION DATE: 1 January 2012
DATE FINISHED: 30 April 2013
VERDICT: 4/5 stars. An interesting book of wonderful advice given by an experienced, sassy, loving columnist.

Here are some of my favorite bits:

"You’re going to be all right. And you’re going to be all right not because you majored in English or didn’t and not because you plan to apply to law school or don’t, but because all right is almost always where we eventually land, even if we fuck up entirely along the way."

"The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave your arms or not. These things are your becoming."

"Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work."

"Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig . . . So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker."

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

ttt: top ten words/topics that make me pick up a book


This week's Top Ten Tuesday on the Broke and the Bookish is Top Ten Words or Topics That Make You Pick Up a Book.

While a good title/cover usually first attracts me to a book, when I skim through the blurb, I'm always hoping to see one of the words/topics below. Of course some books have a different sort of appeal, but by and large, I could put the books I read into one of the follow categories:


TOP TEN TUESDAY:
Top Ten Words/Topics That Make Me Pick Up a Book

1. Victorian/Edwardian (or really, any year between 1600 and 1950)



2. Whimsical/Magical/Enchanting



3. Funny



4. Dark



5. Mystery/Twist/Secret



6. Boarding School/College



7. Speculative Fiction/Science Fiction/Dystopian



8. Britain/France (anywhere cool really, but those two stick out)



9. Magical Realism



10. Playing with Time



What words/topics make you pick up a book?
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