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A Reading Vocation

"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton

This is where I chronicle my reading life.  I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.

 

Book 17/100: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible - Ursula Vernon

This book was super fun -- a retelling of Sleeping Beauty featuring a sturdy, sassy princess who figures out how to use the curse to her advantage. It's funny and subversive without being heavy-handed, equally suited to be enjoyed by kids or adults. I love that Harriet acts like a REAL 12-year-old (even if she is a hamster :)), and of course, the artwork is exuberant and expressive. Will definitely keep reading this series, and would recommend them as read-alouds, too.

Book 16/100: Crossed by Ally Condie

Crossed  - Ally Condie

Usually I like second books in trilogies, but this one feels a bit like it suffers from the "second-book slump," or perhaps from the industry's insistence that authors make trilogies/series out of books that are strongest as standalones.

This book was entertaining enough, and while I enjoyed learning more about the world involved, I didn't find it nearly as compelling as "Matched." But then, I do prefer dystopias that take place in a more "insular" setting rather than those that are more adventurous/sprawling/let's take down the system, etc.

I did like the new characters introduced in this volume and found Indy particularly intriguing.

Book 15/100: The Beast Within by Serena Valentino

The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty's Prince - Serena Valentino

This series keeps disappointing me, but I keep reading it anyway. :p

In Poor Unfortunate Soul: A Tale of the Sea Witch, my main issue was that too much of the book was dedicated to non-canon characters. While that was also an issue in this book -- although to a lesser extent -- one of the things that annoyed me about this one was the way it tried to shoe-horn existing characters into parts of the story where they didn't really belong. I just had a lot of trouble buying that Gaston and Beast used to be friends, even if they did explain that the Beast had "forgotten" about these years after his transformation. A lot of how the prince/beast was portrayed in this book just didn't feel congruous with the one we know in the book, and his redemption seemed to happen too quickly and easily considering how awful Valentino had set him up to be prior to Belle's arrival. I did like the idea of the curse taking hold slowly rather than all at once, though.

Oh, and this book doesn't give a crap about the movie timeline ... as far as I can tell it takes place over a period of two years or so, rather than 10. And it doesn't address the oh-so-awkward issue of the prince being 11 when he is cursed -- he is in his teens (i.e., old enough to know better) in this version. That was just one more thing that made this interpretation feel sloppily done.

Book 14/100: Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

Echo - Pam Muñoz Ryan

This is one of those books that I gave four stars because objectively I could tell it was masterfully done and not necessarily because I enjoyed it a ton.

It consists of four loosely related historical fiction stories. Each one is atmospheric and filled with details that really place you into the time period. The characters are also richly drawn, and each story pulls you in so that you always feel a little bummed when it's time to start the next story. I also liked the fairy tale angle, which I wasn't really expecting, and the way it all came together in the end was satisfying. Not something I would have read on my own (I read it for book club), but not something I regret reading, either. Oh, and if you do it, go for the audio version, which includes harmonica music.

Book 13/100: A Frozen Heart by Elizabeth Rudnick

A Frozen Heart - Elizabeth Rudnick

This is probably the best Disney spinoff novel that I've read so far.

A big part of that is that Rudnick is a good writer, and this book feels like it came from someone who cares enough about her subject matter to really sink into the characters' thoughts, motivations, and world. The book is full of backstory for Anna and Hans that is only hinted at in the movie, gives names and personalities to "bit part" characters, and for the most part does not feel forced or contrived.

My biggest disappointment in this book was how much of its events overlapped with the movie's events -- that means that a sizeable chunk of it was essentially a "novelization," albeit a very good novelization. I would have enjoyed it a LOT when I was young and used to read the novelizations again and again in the time between the movie's theatrical release and its video release, but as an adult (who still reads Disney novels ;)), I was hungry for more new, original material -- especially since Rudnick did that so well.

Book 12/100: Room by Emma Donoghue

Room - Emma Donoghue

I rarely give out five-star reviews, and my criteria for a five-star review is fairly straightforward: I give five stars to books that I don't want to end.

I read lots of books every year that I enjoy, but because my TBR list is so long, I very rarely dread a book ending -- I know there will always be plenty more where that came from!

But this book engaged me so much that I felt dismay rather than accomplishment as I watched the end draw nearer and nearer. In the beginning, it was the voice and the introduction of a horrifying situation that captivated me. Then it was whether they would manage to pull off an escape. And then it was seeing the "normal" world through Jack's eyes, which turned it into a strange and fascinating place.

I've heard people criticize this book for infusing Jack with too much maturity, but his voice felt believably childlike to me throughout -- perhaps it helped that I listened to a full-cast audio version (WONDERFUL) that actually used a child's voice, so it was a lot harder for me to layer an adult inflection on top of Jack's words. The characters were all so richly drawn and multi-dimensional -- even Old Nick, as despicable as he was. I loved both that Jack's narration kept this story from feeling too bleak and also that as an adult you could read between the lines. The movie is excellent as well.

I can see now why people who read Donoguhe's other books after reading this one come away disappointed -- this is certainly a tough act to follow.

Book 11/100: Poor Unfortunate Soul - a Tale of the Sea Witch by Serena Valentino

Poor Unfortunate Soul: A Tale of the Sea Witch - Disney Storybook Art Team, Serena Valentino

I love Ursula, but, alas, this was not the Ursula novel I desperately wanted it to be.

What annoyed me about the book was that it was not a "standalone," which I really feel like the books in this villain series should be in order to give each villain's potentially complex backstory and motives their full due. About half the book was focused on follow-up to events from the previous book in the series, The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty's Prince, which I wasn't really invested in. Overall, it felt more as if the author was more interested in continuing the story with the auxiliary characters that she had made up for the series than really delving into Ursula's story, which felt somewhat tangential to the story Valentino seemed to REALLY want to tell about the "odd sisters" machinations regarding the various villains in the Disney-verse. Overall, this gave the book a somewhat disjointed feel of two stories being told in parallel, one about Ursula's perspective of The Little Mermaid, one about Valentino's own characters that never appear in the Disney movies and thus don't garner a ton of investment from me.

Despite these issues, I still gave the book three stars because the parts that were focused on Ursula's backstory, especially her relationship with King Triton, were well done. The book was also a fun, quick read and an enjoyable bit of escapism. The writing is passable, and despite my disappointment with this series (and other Disney novel spinoffs overall), I know I will keep reading them because, well, Disney.

Book 10/100: Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King

Still Life with Tornado - A.S. King

This is only the second A.S. King book I've read, and while I didn't enjoy it as much as Glory O'Brien's History of the Future, A.S. King's writing voice is so effortless and engaging to me that so far I've been willing to follow her places I might not put up with from other authors. The magical realism in this book -- Sara encounters past and future versions of herself, which her family members can also see and interact with -- is never really explained, and that didn't bother me. In addition, you have to wait a LONG time before figuring out why Sara has basically issued a big F.U. to her life, quitting school, disengaging with family, etc., and I can understand why certain readers would give up on her existential crisis as whiny or entitled.

But none of this bothered me because King's writing weaves this sort of spell on me that makes me trust that she is taking me someplace worthwhile. And that did end up being the case in this book. What starts out feeling like the pointless meandering of a teenager in a funk eventually blooms into an exploration of the longstanding effects of abuse, trauma, and repression. There are no "big revelations" here, but instead an examination of the way all the tiny cracks in a life can add up in th end to something totally broken that must be built again from scratch rather than reassembled from the rubble.

I think teenagers who feel disengaged for seemingly "no reason" could find a real kinship with Sara, while those who relate to her less could find deeper compassion for those around them if they are willing to stick with her through her journey. I'm glad that I did.

Book 9/100: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Carry On - Rainbow Rowell

This book took a little while to get going for me -- at first it felt as if Rowell was clearly out of her element writing fantasy -- and as someone who reads a lot of fantasy, I couldn't help but notice the shortcomings in worldbuilding, and just how LONG it seemed to take to set everything up; the story was about 1/3 of the way in before the plot really got going. Everything else was just showing us what it was like to be a student at Rowell's version of a magical school.

However, this book can really be read on two different levels: as a fantasy story in its own right, or as commentary on the world of Harry Potter.

It's passable as a story in its own right, but as commentary on the Harry Potter franchise, it is brilliant.

The parallels and nods to J.K. Rowling's worlds are obvious -- after all, the book started as an obvious stand-in for Harry Potter and Potter fan culture in its original incarnation in [book:Fangirl|16068905]. It's in the departures from Rowling's world that Rowell really drives her points home. Her version of a magical wizarding school is far more culturally and ethnically diverse than Rowling's, and it includes gay characters who don't have to wait for the whole series to be completed before being "outed" (::coughcough:: Dumbledore being gay after the fact was a copout ::cough cough::). It is, of course, much edgier than Rowling's world, with plenty of swearing and some making out, although certain aspects of it were strangely chaste. (Like, why did we never know the extent of Simon's and Agnes's sexual relationship even though they had been together for three years? Am I the only one who wondered about this?) It also examines the whole idea of the "chosen one" mythos and especially takes a jab at the somewhat creepy/inappropriate/irresponsible relationship between Dumbledore and Harry that is glossed over as perfectly healthy, warm, and admirable in Rowling's book. By contrast, the Mage (Dumbledore's stand-in), is an ethically ambiguous character, ultimately more dark than light, but for a long time Simon sees him through an adoring child's eyes much the way Harry sees Dumbledore. The difference is that Simon's perception of the Mage matures; Harry's never does.

It's somewhat strange to come in reading the "last book" in a series when the earlier books in the series do not actually exist. I couldn't help but notice how much more of an impact this story probably would have had on me if I had been following these characters' lives for years rather than being dropped into their world in the final act. I'm not sure I would have wanted to commit to seven books of this, anyway, but it's definitely a worthwhile read. It's got that Rowell "relationship magic" if that's what you go in for, but it's also a smart, incisive critique of what is arguably the most influential children's series of our lifetimes.

Book 8/100: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

Even though I am a book lover, novels that are supposed to pay homage to books never quite do it for me. There is just something to "fangirl/fanboy" about it all -- and in this book it was especially bad because the author also spent the majority of the book gushing over Google and tech culture. I was like, is this a novel, or a Google infomercial? Right down to the main character's quirky love interest working for the company.

There were times when the pace picked up and I was very curious and intrigued to see how everything would fit together -- but this sense of suspense and mystery was strongest at the beginning of the book, and it got less and less compelling as the book went on -- which I'm pretty sure is the opposite of how it's supposed to work. And the overall conspiracy/message/etc. just ended up feeling so convoluted that by the end I had trouble caring enough to hold it all together. It wasn't a horrible book, but it just felt a bit too much like Silicon Valley (the place, not the show) fan-fiction to me.

Book 7/100: Frazzled - Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom by Booki Vivat

Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom - Booki Vivat, Booki Vivat

This is a fun, energetic and girl-centric alternative to the "Wimpy Kids" and "Big Nate" books that popularly combine journal-style storytelling with funny illustrations. The illustrations of Abbie as she navigates middle school are definitely the best part of this book -- so incredibly expressive! Also addresses the themes of fitting in and finding your own place with an empowering message.

SPOILER ALERT!

Book 6/100: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea - Ruta Sepetys

This is not your typical WWII novel because it focuses on a lesser-explored aspect of the war -- namely the voyage of thousands of refugees, many of them of German descent, who fled the country in the wake of a Russian invasion. The story follows four narrators: a kind-hearted Lithuanian nurse, a Polish teen attempting to hide her ethnicity, a German artist who has defected, and a German soldier.

The writing is beautiful and at times heart-rending, from the protagonists' grueling winter journey to the harbor to the horror of the eventual shipwreck. The characters were well-developed with distinct voices. The book does not shy away from the horrors of war, but it also has enough moments of hope and light to keep it from being too bleak. Two things about the book did annoy me, though. First, I found it unbelievable that Joana would have had as much time as she did to pursue her romance with Florian and her relationship with the other characters once they were actually on the ship, where her skills as a nurse were needed and in incredibly short supply; and second, with as many who perished on the Wilhelm Gustolf, pretty much all our main characters defied the odds and survived, but I guess that's part of what keeps the book from being too bleak.

All in all, it is a masterful piece of historical fiction that does what the best of the genre does: makes history feel truly real, and awakens a desire to know more about the real lives that have been shaped by the tragedies of time.

Book 5/100: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus - L. Frank Baum

When I was young, the toy-mation movie adaptation of this book was one of my favorite Christmas movies ever. It still is, although I don't watch it with the regularity of, say Muppet Christmas Carol. It was always a bit obscure -- it was not played every year like Rudolph or Frosty, and a lot of people had never seen it. I was thrilled to finally find it on VHS and later on DVD so that I can enjoy it for every Christmas and share it with my own kid(s) someday.

All of that preamble is to say that it was impossible for me to read this without my perception being clouded by nostalgia. Because the movie actually follows the book very well, reading the book was like seeing the movie in my mind once again -- and we've already established that I love the movie. Objectively speaking, if I read this without the context of my fondness for it, it may have felt a little like one of those books that was just one thing happening after the other without a really clear through-line. On the other hand, the prose was very often quite beautiful and it was easy to get swept away in the magic of the setting and the nostalgia of a Christmas origin story. I do think it's a pity that this is not as well known as Baum's Oz books, because I found it to be just as magical (although, like the Oz books, it did get a little clunky at the end.)

Book 4/100: Expecting Better - Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong by Emily Oster

Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong-and What YouReally Need to Know - Emily Oster

Around the Year Reading Challenge #TBD: A book you are embarrassed to read in public

I wasn't actually embarrassed to read this book in public, but I was reading it before I had announced that I was pregnant, so I was keeping the book secret.

Now that I'm no longer keeping a secret (and couldn't if I wanted to if you saw me IRL), I'm happy to talk about this book.

I am not an economist like Oster, but I very much related to her obsession with knowing exact numbers and exact reasons behind different pregnancy outcomes and advice. I've spent countless hours Googling (often in vain) for specific statistics and studies to back up general pregnancy/conception advice. Oster looks at a lot of these studies so you don't have to. I loved the tone of this book, which is empowering in that Oster believes women are capable of weighing the risks themselves and making their own decision rather than blindly following conventional wisdom.

Oster's overall takeaway is that women can be much more permissive during pregnancy than one might believe -- moderate drinking is OK, moderate caffeine is OK, invasive genetic testing is not really that dangerous. While she can back all this up and a lot of women will probably feel freed by her information, I still ended up following pretty much all of the "conventional" wisdom because I am so risk averse that even a small increase in the chances of something going wrong is more than I'm willing to take. But it is nice to know I don't need to stay up all night worrying if I give in to the craving for an occasional coffee or sip of beer.

Book 3/100: American Girls by Alison Umminger

American GirlsAmerican Girls by Alison Umminger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Probably wouldn't have read this book if not for my book club, but I found it to be an enjoyable enough read nonetheless.

Generally I don't like movies set in Los Angeles or around the movie industry because a) I've been to L.A. and it was the most soul-sucking place I've ever experienced; and b) a lot of times movies set in and around Hollywood have an element of "wish fulfillment" when it comes to the idea of stardom/fame/etc., that I find to be off-putting.

This book did have a bit of the latter, particularly in Anna's somewhat far-fetched romance with a teen star of a cheesy, Disney-channel-esque show and all her opportunities to hang with famous peeps (some of whom were not so glamorous close-up). But what redeemed this aspect of the book was that it also did not shy away from Hollywood's seedier side -- the difficulty of finding and keeping work as an "unknown" actor, the emphasis on looks, the dysfunction that often accompanies fame, the lengths women must go to to remain thin and beautiful, and yes, the overall soul-sucking nature of it all.

Ultimately, what I liked best about this book were its themes about the way our culture perceives women, from Anna's sister's run-in with pornography (I got the sense that there may have been more of this than the book let on) to Anna's musing over the youth and beauty of the "Manson girls," who she is researching for an indie film for her sister's creepy ex. I expected the Manson murders to play a bigger part in the story, but instead they ended up contributing more to the overall themes rather than standing as plot points on their own. I wish more attention had been given to the throwaway line about how the Manson cult was deeply embedded in racism, though.

At times this book felt like it had too much going on -- Anna's family drama (which she fled to Los Angeles to escape), her romance, her crumbling relationship with her best friend back home, commentary on Hollywood and our looks-obsessed culture. But it could definitely serve as a good antidote to the stars so many Americans still get in their eyes when they think about L.A.

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Book 2/100: The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Marianna Mayer

The Twelve Dancing PrincessesThe Twelve Dancing Princesses by Marianna Mayer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think I might have read this when I was a kid, but I reread because a friend in my book club said it had been her favorite book when she was growing up.

Illustrations are gorgeous and Mayer is excellent at adapting fairy tales -- I still long to find her adaptation of Aladdin that I fell in love with when I was young. What surprised me in this adaptation was the emphasis on the feelings and experience of the boy who uncovers the princesses' secret. I always thought of this as a story about sisters and their illicit adventures, but this version makes it the male "rescuer's" story. I wonder if that is the way the story is traditionally told or if that was the focus of this particular telling.

At any rate, it was a little discomfiting. As a kid I certainly never noticed how creepy the idea of a boy going invisible so he can spy on a room full of girls/women was! But the strangeness of it all is one of the things that still makes this a rich and compelling fairy tale to me, regardless of how it is told or who is emphasized.

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