The Raven Boys (Maggie Steifvalter)

The only thing weirder than growing up in a family of psychics is being the only non-psychic in the group. Blue Sargent is that girl, and she happens to (or is destined to?) cross paths with a group of boys from the local prep school; just the type of boys she always loved to hate. Her “Raven Boys” each come with a set of mysterious characteristics that she finds irresistible yet also hates to love. Gansey, the boy who has too much and is too much; Noah, the one who is most comfortable on the fringe; Ronan, the fiercely angry yet tenaciously loyal boy who always seems to be looking for a fight; and Adam, the one who wants only to be his own man.

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First in a series of three (so far), The Raven Boys contains an adventurous coming-of-age sort of story but seems to mostly serve a foundational purpose for the full series. There are many notable moments that are presented as important yet never fully explained. Gansey’s obsession with discovering magical ley lines drives the plot, as well as the firmly repeated prophecy by Blue’s psychic family that she will kill her first love. These aspects, in addition to scenes of murder and abuse, make this story darker than some may prefer.  

The Raven Boys is a solidly compelling tale, though the emotional tone of the characters varies wildly. Just when it seems Adam has found his stride as a strong, independent boy, he takes a turn that indicates entirely the opposite. On one page, Gansey is in the clear leader of the tribe, tinted only by the angst that comes from unintentionally offending his friends; on another, he arrogantly seeks to do as he pleases regardless of the consequences. Blue is the most constant of the five and it’s no small irony that as the one who came from the family of psychics, she’s the most reasonable of them all.

I’d recommend The Raven Boys for 7th graders and up, given the harshness of the domestic violence contained therein. There is no explicit content and very few curse words, but the concept of ley lines, magic, and witchcraft will be off-putting to some. Stiefvalter definitely does something right with this book, however, because the characters are fantastically intriguing. Since its conclusion I have wondered incessantly what ever happened to Ronan, Noah, Gansey, Adam, and Blue...good thing I know where to find these and other great YA lit!    

 

Best books of 2015

You guys, I read so much last year. So much. More than I have ever read in one year...except maybe 2004 when I was in library school and had so many lit assignments I would literally be listening to an audio book while also reading a different book. It was every bit as crazy and ineffective as it sounds, but skimming two books at once became a whole thing for me in grad school. I usually set my reading goal somewhere around 30-50. Last year I went for the big 75...and blew that goal out of the water, I am proud to say! It took every ounce of reading focus I had, y'all. I was listening to audiobooks on my daily commute, reading ebooks through Overdrive on my phone and Kindle, reading books on my iPad, and also reading my way through the monstrous stack of books beside my bed. I read classics, nonfiction, emerging lit, young adult fiction, biographies...everything! It was a literary buffet.

*Image from Unsplash under CC0.

*Image from Unsplash under CC0.

My 2016 goal is...100 books. One HUNDRED BOOKS. The hecto-fecta. If I pull this off, I may need a t-shirt like those marathon runners. Or perhaps a car sticker. Keep your 26.2, babe. I'll take the One-Zero-Zero hecto-fecta.

Best books I read in 2015 (I tried cutting it to a Top 10, but it was just too painful. Top 17 is the best I can do.)

Each of these made my list for a unique reason. For some, it was purely the quality of literature. For others, it may simply have been the significance of the book in literary history. Regardless, they're each worth your time!

P.S. I've mentioned my love for Goodreads a time or two already. If you're a reader or want to be a readers or don't know what to read or just want to know what people who do read read...hop on the Goodreads train. For avid readers, it helps you organize your books into categories, whether simple - think "books I want to read" and "books I already read" - or complex ("dystopian with female protagonist featuring a global natural disaster") and...the best part...you get recommendations from other actual people, not just what Amazon or the brick and mortars want to sell you.

What were your top 10...ish books in 2015? Fellow bloggers, please leave your links in the comments!


This is what you just put in your mouth? (Patrick Di Justo)

Did you know there is boric acid in some contact lens cleaners, or that if you consume a lot of it, it'll make your vomit aqua-colored? How about shark liver oil in hemorrhoid cream? Quinic acid in your coffee? In This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth? From Eggnog to Beef Jerky, the Surprising Secrets of What's Inside Everyday Products by Patrick DiJusto, these are only a few of the fantastic assortment of facts about foods and other products we bring into our homes and tummies.

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Broken into two parts (the totally inedible and the maybe-shouldn't-be edible), this book covers 50 different products, ranging from A1 steak sauce to Titleist golf balls. Though the information about the materials was enormously interesting, I was most intrigued by the author's introduction and personal notes about his research into each product. Sometimes Di Justo was met with open arms by a company whose item he was researching, and others he was shut out in the cold (typically indicating the company's desire to hide delicate information about their products). Sure, it was fun and also gross to learn there's some ground up guar bean endosperm in our family's beloved Southern Comfort Egg Nog, but what was really fascinating is the back story behind the author's research and all he learned about FDA standards and investigations...and how loosely FDA standards can sometimes be enforced. 

As a mom and middle school librarian, I feel it's important to note that there are a few products of an, ahem, adult nature that Di Justo reviews, making it inappropriate for younger teenagers or children. The book is still very useful as a reference source even for these age groups, only with adequate guidance.

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What Di Justo is really trying to do is to show Americans the dirty details behind the products we love and purchase on a regular basis. Also, he is hysterically sarcastic, and it's easy to see how his seven years of successful blogging for Wired magazine led to the publication of this book. His wit is entertaining, but his goal in prodding the masses to become more informed consumers hits the mark.

And even if you're not into that sort of thing, you have to admit that this book is at the very least 250 pages of some rather priceless trivia.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this honest review.

Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee)

July 14, 2015

12:01am - Go Set a Watchman automatically downloads to my Kindle. 

12:02am - Harper Lee begins the hasty process of dismantling all I thought I knew and loved about my favorite book in the world.

I am going to boldly state here that the release of Harper Lee's second book is most likely the literary event of my lifetime. There is no story more beloved than To Kill a Mockingbird, no characters more revered than Atticus Finch and his children. There has been an abundance of criticism over why Lee has chosen now to publish a second book, widely described as what was actually her first book and published today in first-draft form. Thick are the questions and mistrust over whether or nor Ms. Lee is in full enough possession of her mental faculties to even have truly given permission for this work to have been published. There are accusations about greedy caretakers and cunning attorneys. The release of the story is wrought with controversy.

To that, all of that, I say...none of it matters.

What does matter? Three things.

1. The story. Watchman isn't the first book to be published under a cloud of suspicion, nor is it the first publication to be met with controversy. It'll really earn its wings when it gets banned somewhere. It's probably just the only time the general public has been aware of it, given the immense popularity of the author's first novel. This dabbles in the actual review portion of this post, but Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird are now mutually symbiotic. The complexity of Watchman shovels layers onto Mockingbird's characters who were previously accepted as without flaw.  

2. The author. Folks, I have read some bios and some legal briefs and have conducted some personal interviews concerning Ms. Nelle Harper Lee (Sorry, I know my Mockingbird.), and there is one thing I know beyond all faintest fog of doubt. The woman is brilliant. She's observant, she's keenly aware of how twisted the nature of human beings can be, and she has never - not in 50+ years - ever not known how to protect her book. She has sued individuals, the city of Monroeville, organizations...she has fervently defended her personal rights, her personal privacy, her rights as an author, and the rights to her Mockingbird for decades, and she has done so very well. I have lots of theories about why she chose NOW to publish, but the most important part of this point is that Nelle Lee has proven a thousand times over that legally, she knows exactly what she is doing. How odd for the world to have begged this woman for years to pleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease let us read more of her work, she gives it to us, and we question her for it! And honestly, the controversy has only drawn more attention and sales for her, so I wouldn't at all be surprised if she purposely orchestrated it that way. Read a little about her and you'll see that option is not so far-fetched.

3. The legacy. It's interesting the number of people who keep saying they won't read it because of what they've heard or reviews they have read, but we are talking about the most widely anticipated novel of the 21st century. In as little as two years, the publication drama won't even be remembered because it will be entirely swallowed up by the hugeness of the actual story. By the time my girls are old enough to read To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman will be widely accepted not simply as the sequel but also as the true complementary companion to Lee's first book. It enables readers to consider the characters and plot more deeply. To refuse that now is just...not understandable to me.  

So what of it, then? Well, I'll tell you what Go Set a Watchman was for me.

*Semi-spoiler alert. I didn't read a single review before I read it, and advise that same course. I won't come right out and mess up anything for you, but I would prefer you NOT read this part before you read the book for your own little self.

Go Set a Watchman is set about 25 years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Some things are exactly the same in Maycomb, and some things are wildly different. Little Scout in all grown up but she's still Ms. Jean Louise to most people. She has a suitor who's crazy for her and rather a good match, someone Jem or Atticus would have chosen for her should she ever have allowed it. We get a bigger, more complete picture of the Finch family from Calpurnia and Atticus to Aunty Alexandra and Uncle Jack. Those who were absolute pains in little Scout Finch's neck are those she depends on most as Ms. Jean Louise.

The book spans the few weeks Jean Louise is in Maycomb, come home for a short vacation from her busy life in New York. We follow her as she makes some disturbing discoveries about Atticus, combined with perfectly familiar reminiscent tales about what she, Jem, and little Charles Baker Harris were up to for their adolescent years. We get to see how Jem continued to look out for his baby sister and how Atticus's parenting shaped both his children. We get so many questions answered..such as what Scout's teenage years were like for Atticus as a single father, or what had actually happened to Scout's and Jem's mother.

There's so much reference back to Mockingbird that you are tempted to feel safe with these characters, because in To Kill a Mockingbird, everything was somewhat okay, because at least Atticus is honest. At least Scout has Jem. At least Scout has Dill. At least Scout has Calpurnia. At least Scout can have her questions answered clearly, because at least Scout has Atticus.

But what if she didn't? In Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee answers that bigger question and shows us what happens to Jean Louise Finch when the man she once worshiped isn't who she thought he was. Harper Lee answers that question and she scars the hearts of readers in unexpected ways as she writes about race relations, daddy issues, segregation, privilege (racial and socioeconomic), and love.

That makes us as readers, as Mockingbird fans, really uncomfortable. Because all that is good and right with Mockingbird is wrapped up in Atticus Finch.

I think I might know why Harper Lee waited so long to publish this book. Maybe she couldn't bear the thought of destroying the Atticus we all thought he was. Of taking a man we admired as simple and wholesome and good and just, and complicating him all up so that nobody can figure out what he is anymore. Or shoot, maybe she just put a timer on it and was like, Imma just publish this in 2015 if we aren't all teleporting to Mars by then. Because, really, who knows?

I do know that Go Set a Watchman does exactly what I was hoping her second publication would do, which is to prove she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Rumored nastily to have been a total fraud, Harper Lee convinced me the very moment I finished Mockingbird in the 9th grade that this lady is not just an author but a writer, and that writers have to write...they can't not write. I have believed for all this time that Harper Lee has piles of written work, she just didn't want to publish yet. I believe the first-draft claims, because there is some looseness to the work as a whole, a few scenes we could do without. But the writing style, the literary patterns are so similar in Watchman that I found myself smiling and highlighting like crazy just because I recognized the cadence of her work.

And it is beautiful. 

Don't you think?

The Martian (Andy Weir)

The Martian
$8.25
By Andy Weir

The dust settles after a series of rather unfortunate events, and astronaut Mark Watney finds himself stranded on Mars. Between trying to figure out a way to let his crew know he is alive and actually remaining that way, his days quickly fill with one insane near-death experience after another. Written in mission log-type format, entries range from raw and vulnerable to eager and hopeful superstellar math conversions. It is so, so terribly mathy that I’m totally surprised I enjoyed it so much. There are plenty of moments when he is calculating pressure, velocity, mass, time characteristics of elements, yada yada yada and okay, my brain did kind of turn to a bit of mush. But the story is SO GOOD, it’s well worth hanging on through the moments of arithmetic-on-intergalactic-steroids. One of my personal favorites is when Watney invents his very own unit of measurement (he’s inventing quite a lot of things in The Martian) and called it a Pirate Ninja. That’s my kind of math, man.     

The Captain and I agree that audiobook format is your best bet on this one. The actor’s tone, personal brand of sarcasm, and wit matches the author’s so well...it really brings out the humor and other emotions on a much deeper level. Now, we do need you to know that there is quite a bit of language, so as you listen just be sure you start this off with earbuds in.

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It’s basically Castaway meets Hatchet. Plus maybe a little dab of The Truman Show.

And up until the very very last word, you’ll find yourself wondering...is Mark Watney going to survive?