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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 20/100: Amy Spangler's Breastfeeding - a Parents' Guide

— feeling baby
Amy Spangler's Breastfeeding: A Parent's Guide - Amy K. Spangler

A good beginner's guide to breastfeeding -- it's short and broken into clear sections with illustrations and bulleted text, so it's not intimidating but still packed with really good information. It gets a bit repetitive if you read it straight through (which I did), but I can see why certain bits of important information were repeated often since most people who read this will skip around to the sections that are relevant to them, so the most crucial info needs to be in pretty much all those sections. Would definitely recommend to those who are put off by massive breastfeeding tomes like The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding but who are still interested in practical info and tips on nursing a baby.

— feeling love
YES!!!! Thirty free audiobooks, two every week, from now through the summer. I freakin' LOVE this program. Even if you aren't a big YA or audiobook fan, check out their roster of titles -- there is a huge variety and did I mention, um, FREE? Give it a try; I don't think you'll regret it.

AudioBook SYNC

Reblogged from JL's Bibliomania:

Do you like YA? Do you like Audiobooks? Do you like free stuff?

 

Audiobook SYNC is starting up for the summer!

Book 19/100: Feed by M.T. Anderson

Feed - M.T. Anderson

This seminal teen dystopia has been on my TBR forever (maybe since it was published?) and thanks to my book club I finally got it checked off!

I always find it a little refreshing to read "old school" teen dystopias, before the formula of singular teen who realizes the evil of "the system" and vows to overthrow it in three books came along. The best dystopias are always about social commentary, not movie franchising rights, and this one has a lot relevant to say in the realm of social commentary.

This was published in the early 2000s, after the Internet had become ubiquitous and right on the edge of web 2.0 when everyone became content creators. The way that technology has totally infiltrated everyone's life and the way that advertisers "feed" into everything people do is, of course, quite prescient, although perhaps what is missing is the ability for humans to interact back and create content in a way that goes beyond their purchasing power. Still, I can't help but think of this book when I noticed that every third post on my Facebook feed these days is an ad ... usually one that is disturbingly on-target.

Titus is not a very likeable character, and he is so enmeshed in the system that he doesn't see its pitfalls. His love interest, Violet, is somewhat outside the system and so calls it into question a bit more, but she fortunately stops just short of being a manic pixie dream girl. Although Titus's behavior, especially his inability to connect with her on a real, meaningful level when she needs him to, is incredibly frustrating, I also found it to be totally spot-on believable for someone who had grown up in this culture with these values.

I really wanted to know more about the larger society in which Titus lived, but because he was so wrapped up in his own pursuit of entertainment, distraction, and consumerism, we only got glimpses of these things as they stayed on the periphery of his consciousness. Still, a chilling and powerful cautionary tale that is made stronger by not having a single character beat us over the head with how "wrong" the society is. Thanks, M.T. Anderson, for delivering a dystopia that invites the reader to think for herself.

Book 18/100: Of Mice & Magic by Ursula Vernon

Hamster Princess: Of Mice and Magic - Ursula Vernon

Just as much fun as Harriet the Invincible.

I recently re-read the 12 Dancing Princess (which this story retells), and was struck by how, even though the story is named for the titular women, all of whom presumably have their own lives, the story really revolves around the guy who creeps on them trying to figure out where they go at night. The story is about him, not the cursed princesses.

In Vernon's version, Harriet stands in for the gardener who saves the day -- so while she still takes center stage, at least a story ostensibly about 12 women doesn't inadvertently end up being about one man. Also, the princesses in the story are given some real "page-time" and personalities and desires of their own, all of which are improvements over the original. Prose is funny and smart and artwork is charming.

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.