Book Reviews: December 2015 – June 2016

I think you should get cozy, because this post is going to be massive! Get some snacks, and your beverage of choice, then come back to read this post. I haven’t posted about books at all this year (my last book review post was in November), so we have some catching up to do. I hope you get at least one new book idea from this post. Let’s dive in!

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THE-BODY I love how Christie plays with the stereotype of the library in mystery novels. In the beginning, the body of a young girl is found in the library and the surprise expressed when this fact is revealed to the owners of the house is quite amusing (basically along the lines of, “But,how did the body end up in my library?”). In fact, Christie pokes fun at various figures throughout the novel, including men who underestimate women like Miss Marple. This was another solid mystery from Agatha Christie and I enjoyed it.

THE-GROWNUP It’d been a while since I read anything by Flynn (I read all of her novels a few years ago), it this was a nice reminder of how much I enjoy her writing. It was so short though! Still, Flynn managed to tell a lot in a few pages, and I found this both entertaining and creepy. I can’t wait for her next full-length novel to come out.

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FINNIKIN

FROI

QUINTANA Since I read all three books in this trilogy last month, let’s talk about the series as a whole. It was excellent. I didn’t really have any expectations when I started it, so I was blown away by how much I enjoyed it. First, of all the characters were fantastic. I just want to hug the author for giving us such interesting, well-developed characters. I fell in love with the characters in the first book and became heavily invested in their lives. To see them suffer and grow and fight and survive over the course of the series was really rewarding. Also, the author has created such a fascinating world. I find that I’m more interested in politics when it’s fictional. I was able to follow the relationships between the different kingdoms and enjoyed how each kingdom was distinctly described and was it’s own separate world.

This is fantasy, so there were some mystical elements in play here. In particular, there are prophecies and curses, and it’s interesting to see how they are connected and ultimately explained. This is a strange statement, but one thing I love about a crisis is the way it brings people together. In these novels, unlikely alliances are made and people are willing to risk everything for a better world. I love that! These books also deal with difficult topics so that they are carefully handled, without shying away from the reality of these tragedies.

I think these books are long (I’m not entirely sure how long exactly since I read the eBooks), but I found them relatively fast-paced and entertaining. I was so engrossed while reading this over the holiday break and my family quickly learned to ignore the little sounds of surprise or amusement that I made as I was reading.

I found this series by stalking Max’s YA shelves, but I haven’t heard anybody speak about them before (although I’ve been told that Reagan from Peruse Project has mentioned them on her channel). The characters are excellent, the world-building is excellent, and the story is excellent. I’ll second Max and say that more people should read this series!

CINDER

SCARLET

CRESS I knew this series is popular and I was on a real YA kick in December, so I decided to pick it up. Also, fairytale retellings are my jam, so I had a feeling I’d get along with this series. About halfway through Cinder, I was enjoying it, but not sure what all the hype was about. Then a lot started to happen in the book and I was finally sucked in. I liked a lot of the twists that Meyer made to the traditional story. Cinder is more of a tomboy in this version and it’s awesome to see the way she develops over the series. In fact, I think she is my favorite character of all of them, possibly because she demonstrates the most growth.

I wasn’t in love with the setting in the first book. I’m not sure why exactly, but it was lacking something for me. Over the course of the series, I think it’s gotten better, I think because we move out of New Beijing and explore other locations.

Meyer’s writing is really easy to read and engaging. I think she’s also done a really great job of weaving together these different stories. By the end of book 1, I was excited by Cinder’s story line and I was afraid that it would be put on the backburner in book 2. Instead, we alternate between a new character (Scarlet) and Cinder and I’m really happy that Meyer chose to structure the novel that way. I also like the new characters we were introduced to and the overall story of Scarlet, although I do agree with a couple comments that it didn’t do much to move the main plot forward. It was still nice to explore the backstory a bit more though.

Now on to Cress. Can we talk about how great Thorne is as a character?! He’s sarcastic and rakish and charming, but behind all of the razzle dazzle, he has a heart. I love characters like that. I have to say though that I did not like Cress for most of the novel. Not that I actively disliked her, but she just felt so meh, compared to some of the other characters. Cinder and Scarlet can take care of themselves, but Cress is so helpless most of the time. By the end, she’d grown on me though.

My favorite pairing so far is Cinder and Kai. I really like that they see the best in each other and that understand each other better more than several other people in their lives. I’m looking forward to reading book 4 and finding out how the series wraps up!

GRAVE-MERCY You had me at nun assassins (or is it assassin nuns?). Seriously, the premise of this book is so intrigued. I’d say the actual delivery on such an intriguing premise was only somewhat there. I would have liked to spend a little more time with Ismae at the convent as she learned the skills she needed to become a great assassin. Still, the plot moved along at a good pace and I found the politics surrounded Ismae’s main mission pretty interesting. I was not entirely mad at the romance aspect either, except the way that Ismae was portrayed as clueless when it came to men. Another thing I felt iffy about was that it seems that they were thought to either seduce or kill their targets in order to diffuse or get out of a situation. Is there really no other way but seduction or death?

Besides a few misgivings, I liked the book overall. I found the story pretty interesting and I liked Ismae as a character. I wanted her to succeed. I also liked the writing style, which had an old-world feel to it. I might continue the series because the next two books follow two of the other characters mentioned in this book, and I remember thinking that I wish I knew more about them as I was reading.

INTERVIEW I’ve seen bits and pieces of the movie and then a friend recommended the book to me, so I decided to pick it up. I’m definitely interested in vampire stories so I was curious about this popular series. I didn’t expect it to be so philosophical though. Louis is basically miserable the entire time and grapples with his code of ethics and his purpose in life. Also, the relationship between Louis and Claudia made me uncomfortable, although I suppose it was meant to. They turned down the creepiness in the movie (which I watched in full after finishing the book), although it’s still creepy because now you have a mental image. The idea of a child vampire is both titillating/terrifying. When it describes how Claudia would lure in her victims, I thought “Ackk!” but also, that’s entertaining stuff. I didn’t love this, but it considers some interesting questions and for pop culture reasons, I feel like it’s one of the important vampire books to read.

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EVERYTHING Ok, people, you were right. This book was amazing; just as good as people say it is.

Everything I Never Told You is a novel about grief, family, and so much more. The Lees are a Chinese-American family living in Ohio in the 1970s. When the eldest daughter and favorite child, Lydia, dies, the delicate family balance is broken and each member of the family must come to terms with their loss. We begin with Lydia’s death, and then shift back and forth in time to before and after the incident.

It is incredible to me that this was a debut novel. Ng writes with an experienced quality, creating characters that are fully-formed and completely believable. In particular, Ng beautifully captures a wide variety of human emotions.

Ng deftly explores several themes in this short novel, including otherness. She describes how the Lees spend their entire lives feeling different because of their race, and how they are reminded of their differences every day. She also examines family dynamics and how sibling relationships shift when one child is favored above the rest. There are generational questions too, as the parents strive for a better life for their children, for their children not to experience the regrets that haunt their own lives.

I felt that this book was beautifully and truthfully written. I felt connected to it on several different levels, able to identify with a lot of the struggles that the characters faced. I have no idea why it took me so long to pick this up, but I’m so glad I did. I’d recommend it to anyone and I’ve already named it my favorite read of 2016 thus far.

THE-EXPATS I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live abroad and this latest novel from Janice Y. K. Lee gave me a peek into the expat life. The story centers around three women: Mercy, a twenty-something struggling to find her purpose in life, Margaret, a mother of three who has a handsome husband and an envy-inducing life, and Hilary, who is desperate to become a mother herself. Lee weaves these lives together as each woman explores her own identity.

I found the setting and descriptions of expat culture fascinating. Lee focuses on American expats who are stationed in Hong Kong for a year, or three, or ten. The expatriates stay within their own community, and interaction with locals is often characterized by a clash of cultures. Within the expat community, there are different cliques based on wealth, or common interests.

This is a quiet, beautiful written novel. Through her choice of words, Lee is able to convey so much about a character’s personality. Each of the three women is a distinct entity, with their own quirks, insecurities, mannerisms and principles.

Each woman also has a significant hurdle to overcome: Margaret must deal with a terrible loss, Mercy tries to recover from a traumatic event, and Hilary constantly feels a lack- the absence of a child. As these three women try to reform their lives, Lee takes the reader along for the journey. If you have an interest in experience other cultures and enjoy character studies of women, I’d highly recommend The Expatriates.

THE-FISHERMEN The Fishermen is a story about fate and destiny and about the childhood of four brothers living in the small town of Akure, Nigeria. When their father moves to a different city for work, they take advantage of his absence to venture down to the forbidden river and fish. On one of these adventures, they encounter the local madman who tells them a prophecy that will forever change the course of their lives.

Obioma weaves in elements of fable, fairytales, and African proverbs as he chronicles the lives of these four boys. His descriptions are vivid and conjure up images that are both weird and wonderful. He demonstrates how one incident can have a ripple effect on many lives. In addition to the lives of this particular family, Obioma paints a picture of the political and cultural landscape of Nigeria at that time.

Although I thought this was beautifully written, I did feel a certain distance from the characters that prevented me from fully immersing myself in the story. I can’t pinpoint if something was lacking for me, or if my expectations when I started the novel were too high. Regardless, Obioma has delivered a very strong debut novel and I’ll be looking out for his next work.

THE-PICTURE This was a reread for me, and as I often find with rereads, I rediscovered how great this book is. I was particularly fascinated by how Dorian’s life is changed and influenced by the development of a friendship with Lord Henry. Was he already on the path of self-destruction when he met Lord Henry, or was he placed there? I think many of Wilde’s comments and observations on beauty, youth, and society, and the entanglement of these three topics, still hold true today. Also, I tabbed so many of Wilde’s aphorisms throughout the book, that I probably should have just started underlining them. I was happy to revisit The Picture of Dorian Gray and check off my classic for the month.

EENY-MEEN Two people are kidnapped and trapped in an abandoned building. They are left with only a gun and a message from their kidnapper: the only way out is if one of them dies, otherwise, they’ll both starve to death. Eeny Meeny is the first novel in a series featuring Detective Helen Grace. Helen’s objective is to track down this criminal and uncover their motive.

This book is a real page-turner thanks to the straightforward sentences and short chapters. Arlidge gets straight to the point and drops the reader right into this twisted tale. For pure entertainment purposes, I’d rate this thriller higher, even though the plot does begin to feel repetitive after a point. However, the mediocre writing quality began to grate my nerves several chapters in. The dialogue felt stilted, and in some instances, conversations were confusingly described, when I felt dialogue or better descriptions would have suited the passages more.

In addition, the characters receded far into the background, while the plot was the main focus. Although there are several police officers mentioned throughout the book, I could only tell you a little bit about a three or four of them (including our main character, Helen) because the rest are there in name only.

Despite its flaws, I found this entertaining enough to keep reading until the killer was uncovered. While I can’t really recommend this first installment, I will probably continue the series at some point to see if some of my criticisms are resolved in future novels.

SUDDEN About 30 pages into this book, I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening, but I decided to accept that feeling and buckle up for the ride. And what a ride it was! Sudden Death describes a fictional tennis match between the Italian painter, Caravaggio, and the Spanish poet, Francisco Quevedo. Interspersed between the games are snippets from historical texts, emails with his editor, and storylines featuring other prominent historical figures, such as Hernán Cortés and Vasco de Quiroga. Like the tennis ball in the match, the reader bounces around wildly from story to story and the result is disorienting and mind-bending (in a good way!).

First of all, this was a lot of fun and I certainly haven’t read anything like it before. Enrigue loves to play with reality, so that it’s difficult to distinguish between fact, speculation, and pure imagination. The novel is full of violence- beheadings, religious movements, and war. Enrigue breaks up these brutal tales with bits of humor so that one minute you’re wincing at a death and the next you’re chuckling at the ridiculousness of some of the characters (sometimes the wincing and the chuckling is happening at the same time).

Enrigue explores so many themes in Sudden Death, from language, translation, and the power of words, to art and the responsibility of the artist. The chapters are generally short and move quickly, but I found myself constantly pausing to look up a historical figure, or a movement, or one of Caravaggio’s paintings. My history knowledge is rather rusty at the moment, so it would be interesting to reread this at a later point with a better understanding of the historical context.

I was able to attend an event with the author and he said that “the novel is a proposal.” It’s up to the reader to bring their own interpretations to the table. The author was able to say so much in such a short novel. My review is just scratching the surface- I want more people to read this so that we can discuss!

THE-BLUEST-EYE I finally (finally!) read my first Toni Morrison novel and it did not disappoint. The Bluest Eye is the story of Pecola, who wishes desperately for blue eyes, which she equates with beauty, belonging, and all that is good in the world. Pecola does not have a good childhood (her father is a drunk and her mother barely cares for her children) and sadly we witness Pecola’s life devolve from bad to much worse.

It pretty much goes without saying that Morrison’s writing was beautiful, but it was also more accessible than I thought it would be. I was intrigued by the structure as we jumped back in time to understand the history of the characters and how this history leads to the terrible events in Pecola’s life. The story is narrated from the perspective of a young black girl who is friends with Pecola and we never hear from Pecola herself. I understand this was a conscious choice on Morrison’s part, but it still left me wishing to hear Pecola’s perspective at least once.

Morrison explores society’s obsession with beauty, but particularly a certain kind of beauty- standards and ideals that have been perpetuated throughout time. Of course the author writes about race and the divides created between white people and black people and between black people who despise their own blackness and other black people.

The overwhelming feeling when I finished this book was sadness. Pecola is mistreated and downtrodden her entire life and she deserves none of it. I can’t wait to pick up another book by Morrison, although not right away because I’ll need some time to recover from this one.

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BETWEEN When Toni Morrison says a book is required reading, you read it. Written as a letter to his son, Coates explores the concept of “race” in America. He discusses his childhood and growing up on the streets, and his period of discovery when he attended Howard, the Mecca.

Coates describes race as an idea constructed by society and how black bodies have been affected by this construct for years. He writes about learning to question everything, rather than accepting ideas or “norms” as they are. He discusses the moment that his son realized the world is not a fair place, and his own realization of the gulf that exists between the world and him.

This was certainly a powerful and thought-provoking read. There were ideas that I’d never considered before and I think it’s difficult not to feel some despair while reading about some of the things that Coates has experienced. There are no quick or easy solutions. Acknowledging and accepting that there are problems is important, as is continuing to seek answers. It is a fairly short book, but if you plan to read it, I’d encourage you to take it slowly to really absorb his words.

THE-COUNT The sense of accomplishment that I feel after finishing this book is real, guys. Over the course of two months, I read this as a buddy read with Ameriie. I’d previously read an abridged version and I’ve seen the movie several times, so I had a pretty good idea of the story (or at least I thought I did!).

In terms of language and writing style, I think this classic is very accessible. Normally it takes me some pages to settle into the different style, but I was engaged from the very beginning. It doesn’t hurt that this novel is quite fast-paced (even more so if you’re reading the abridged version, from what I’ve been told).

There’s revenge and romance, duels and disguises; basically everything I could want in one novel. There are so many characters to love in this book and it is truly a great adventure to follow the course of the Count’s life for a period of about 25 years (my math might be off there- feel free to correct me).

Let’s talk about the size of this book. I will admit that seeing a page count of 1462 pages is very daunting, but don’t let it stop you. I read this book in short spurts over a long period of time, until the last 330 pages, which I read in a day. I’m sure that if you set your mind to it, you could easily finish this book in a much shorter time frame than I did. And the story is so worth it! Except for a few chapters here and there, I was intrigued by the plot the entire time.

Long story short, The Count of Monte Cristo was excellent and I’d read it again (although not anytime soon ;)

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PERSUASION Before today, I would have called myself a Jane Austen fan, but really I was a Pride and Prejudice fan because that was the only Austen novel I’d read up until this month. I wasn’t sure which Austen to pick up next, but a few people recommended that I turn to Persuasion.

Persuasion was a slow burn for me. Of course, in the beginning, I was comparing it to Pride and Prejudice, which is a book that I fell in love with right away. Persuasion follows Anne Elliot, one of three sisters in a well-respected family in the English countryside. When Anne is a teenager, she falls in love with a sailor named Wentworth, but is persuaded not to marry him due to his lower rank in society.

It wasn’t until I was about 80 pages in that I began to identify with Anne and connect to the story. Anne is often overlooked and taken for granted, but she has a quite strength and grace that is very compelling. I could see some of myself in Anne with her sensitive and analytical nature, and her desire to please others. I also appreciated Anne’s patience in dealing with her family, who all seem like a bunch of nincompoops. I can’t imagine it being easy to put up with them!

Austen’s  writing slowly draws the reader into Anne’s world and even from an early stage, I was rooting for Anne. It doesn’t matter that it was written hundreds of years ago- Austen’s characters and their desires and struggles still feel very relevant today. There was one moment in particular that just filled me with delight, to the point that I actually squealed and gasped when I read it (it’s pretty well known, I’m sure you could guess if you’ve read the book). I can’t wait to watch the adaptations of Persuasion and I’m looking forward to my next Austen.

DRAGONFLY Oh how I missed you, Claire and Jaime. This second novel in the Outlander series picks up where the first left off, beginning in the modern age and then moving to the past. Claire and Jaime have traveled to a new country and have to find ways to adjust to their new life. There’s court intrigue, political plots, lavish parties, and more. I won’t say more about the plot other than that, since this is the second book in a series.

My first feeling when I started this book was delight at being back in this world. I missed the setting, the characters, and being wrapped up in their lives. I loved the first half of the book and reading descriptions of the new setting. If you’ve read the book, I’ll just say that I’m fascinated by that time and that country, so the first half of the book ticked all of my boxes.

In the second half, the political plot line takes prominence, which I don’t find as interesting as other themes in the novel. For that reason, the second half dragged a bit for me, although I was still interested enough to keep reading. I’m still impressed, however, by how throughly Gabaldon researched the time period and how accurate the setting feels. I mean, I haven’t fact-checked her work, but I think the readers can sense when the author has thoroughly and carefully constructed their world.

Dragonfly in Amber didn’t grab me the same way that Outlander did, with the novelty of discovering a new, rich world filled with compelling characters. Despite that and despite the somewhat uneven reading experience, I enjoyed this second installment and would like to continue the series at some point.

NO-ONE-KNOWS Five years ago, Aubrey Hamilton’s husband vanished into thin air. No one knows what happened to him and for a while, Aubrey was a prime suspect in the case of his disappearance. The book begins in the present, with the State of Tennessee declaring Josh Hamilton legally dead. Although Aubrey hasn’t found the answers or closure that she wanted, she decides to try and move on with her life, until strange events cause her to question everything she thought she knew about her life before.

I’m still a bit mad about this book, which had an ending that left me feeling duped, and not in a good way. I mean, I like a good plot twist as much as the next person, but it has to make sense and fall into place with the rest of the story. I want a plot twist to be exciting because I didn’t see it coming, not because the author pulled it out of a rabbit hole, just for the sake of having a plot twist.

My overall conclusion is that while this was an entertaining read, it wasn’t compelling enough for me to recommend it to others.

Seattle/Vancouver Recommendations?

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You know when you’ve been planning a vacation for months, and it seems like it will never happen, then all of a sudden, it’s here? I’ve been thinking about this trip since December (probably even earlier than that) and now it’s finally close!

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be heading home to California. My full itinerary, though, involves LA, San Diego, Seattle, and Vancouver! I’ll be home to visit my family and then we’re taking a family vacation to Seattle and Vancouver. On the way back, I’ll spend a night in LA, then head down to San Diego for my best friend’s wedding.

To say I’m excited is an understatement and I know I’m only going to get more excited as the trip draws nearer. If you’ve been to Seattle or Vancouver and have any recommendations to share, I’d love to hear them. I’ve been planning the bulk of the trip and I’d love to know if there are any must-see sights or must-do activities that I should add to my list. This will be our first visit to both of these cities and I’m so excited to explore somewhere new (and to finally relieve that wanderlust itch for a bit).

Just talking about the trip makes me giddy. Hopefully I’ll have lots of pictures and some videos to share with you guys when we get back! I’m actually thinking about renting a different lens for the trip (have any of you ever rented camera equipment?).

Tell me: Do you have any trips planned for the summer?

(images via 1 // 2 // 3 // 4)

Fifth-Year Reunion Photo Diary

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A couple of weekends ago, I went to my fifth-year reunion and had a surprising amount of fun. It wasn’t that I thought I wouldn’t have a good time, it’s just that with the move and everything else going on, it kind of snuck up on me. In fact, I thought maybe I would skip it, but instead, I ended up registering about a week before the event.

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I started to get really excited on the train ride down to New Haven. I made the train trip with one of my really good friends who used to live in NYC, but now lives in San Francisco. It was so good to see her and catch up, and that’s really what the whole weekend was like. With the exception of a couple people, all of my good college friends went to reunion and it was so wonderful to have everyone in the same place again.

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We laughed, we reminisced, we danced, and we chatted. I’d been seriously lacking in friend time thanks to the move, so it was just pleasant to have a weekend away to relax and stop thinking about the apartment for a bit. Also, every time I step back onto campus, I’m reminded of how beautiful it is.

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I’m really glad I went to my college reunion. I’ve heard rumors that some people have started to plan my ten-year high school reunion next year, so that should be interesting!

 

Long Walks on the Beach

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Remember how I started to recap the impromptu road trip that my family took last summer, but never finished? Even though it’s nearly been a year since the trip (in fact, we are currently planning our family trip for this summer!), I thought I’d pick up where I left off. Except, I thought I’d done a lot more recapping than I actually did! This is the third post I’ve drafted because I kept having to go back to parts of the trip that I haven’t covered yet. It’s been nice to reminisce on the trip though and now that I’m editing the photos, hopefully I will finally be able to put together that photo book I’ve been meaning to do.

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So when we left off, I’d just shown you guys snaps of the beautiful beach house we stayed out. It was such a charming house and I almost wish we were going back there this summer. One major perk of the house was that it was a two-minute walk to the beach. It was a very pleasant beach as well- clean, and not at all crowded.

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I actually really love going to the beach, but I don’t get to go as often as I’d like. Part of me thinks I might retire in a beach house somewhere. Anyway, this particular evening, my siblings and I felt like taking a long walk on the beach. It was nice to stroll along the beach together and chat. There were also moments of silence too, as we were each lost in our own thoughts.

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