My Favorite Books from January

I finished 14 books in January, putting me on track for the 150 I want to read this year. Of those 14 books, here were my favorites.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue/ The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, by Mackenzi Lee (YA Historical fiction, LGBTQ+)

If history had been as interesting as these books, I would have liked it a lot better. Mackenzi Lee explains that she did take a few liberties with history, but overall, she tried to make them as historically accurate as possible. They’re fast-paced adventure stories with great characters.

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Paper Valentine, by Brenna Yovanoff (YA mystery)

Usually when people say a book is “atmospheric,” that’s a clue for me to stay away because it’s more about setting than plot.

Not true in this case. It is creepy and atmospheric with a mystery I only partly had figured out by the end. I couldn’t stop turning pages, and I loved the relationship between the main character, and her best friend (who’s a ghost and still haunting her). The best friend died from her anorexia, and it’s discussed in a realistic, moving way, but it doesn’t take the focus from the plot.

I look forward to reading other books by this author.

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Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds (YA contemporary, poetry)

This book is hard to describe. I kept putting it down and picking it back up, so I ended up reading through it in one day.

It’s a contemporary novel about a teenage boy whose brother was shot due to gang violence, and he’s “supposed to” get revenge. In the elevator, on his way to shoot the guy who did it, he’s visited by various ghosts who tell their own stories. It never gets preachy or heavy-handed.

Oh yeah, and it’s written in poetry. Which sometimes slows reading down for me, but not in this case. It did take me a few pages to get used to the style and voice, but once I did, I was all in.

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Red, by Erica Spindler (Romance)

This is an old favorite of mine, written in 1995. To describe it as “romance” doesn’t do it justice. It’s not the same old boy meets girl, boy pursues girl, boy marries girl story that we’ve all seen.

It starts off with teenage Becky Lynn, an ugly duck living with an abusive family in a small town. When some teenage boys rape her and no one believes her (or cares), she takes off on her own and makes a life for herself. It follows her through finding her dreams (and then losing them). No matter what terrible things, Becky Lynn continues to remake herself until she gets the happy ending she deserves.

Seriously, if you like romance but aren’t into same old/ same old, this one is fantastic.

 

What’s the best book (or books) you read in January?

 

Saving the End Until Later

Recently, when I was re-watching Battlestar Galactica, a main character talked about his favorite book, and how he doesn’t know how it ends because he never finished it. His argument is that he loves the book so much that he never wanted it to end.

Um… say what?

There are a lot of bookish habits I find odd, but this one is almost incomprehensible. I can honestly say it never occurred to me to not finish a book I love. When I don’t finish a book, it’s because it’s so awful that I just can’t.

When I love a book, it’s hard for me to put it down. I race to finish it. I don’t want to do anything but read that book. For me, it’s like being in love. Sometimes I read so quickly that when I get to the end, I start over again so I can enjoy it at a more leisurely pace.

I’m not sure that I could stop reading an excellent book (especially a favorite) if I tried. I’d be thinking about it, dreaming about it, creating my own endings. And anything I could come up with probably wouldn’t be as good as what the author could come up with.

I wonder if this was just a weird character trait that someone picked because it seemed interesting, or if people actually do this.

Have you ever done this or heard of this? Are you a savor-er or a gulper?

The Best Way to Arrange Books

When I was a kid, I lived in an old farmhouse. My room had a chimney running through it. By the time we lived there, the chimney didn’t work anymore, and we didn’t have a fireplace. I had three bookshelves surrounding my chimney, and I didn’t really have a method or arranging my books. I just stuffed them in wherever.

As I got older, I still just put my books wherever, but I also had a shelf of my favorites, some of which are still my favorites today.

That haphazard way of arranging books lasted until I moved to Texas. We had moved three times previously, and my Ikea bookshelves were in pretty rough shape. I wanted a real library with real wooden bookshelves.

I had never unpacked all my books in any of the places I lived. I just never had the shelf space and wasn’t even sure how many books I owned. (I’m at 1,770, in case you’re curious.)

With that many books, there’s only one way to deal with them. I had to go with sections and alphabetize within section.

My largest section, by far, is fiction. I have all short story anthologies shelved separately. I have a shelf for memoir/ biography, several for psychology texts, a shelf for graphic novels, and then a couple shelves of mixed nonfiction. That mixed shelf has an eclectic mix of paranormal phenomena, mythology, gardening, home repair, and pretty much anything that wouldn’t fit on the other shelves.

I’ve seen people talk about shelving by cutesy things like color or size, and while that might be, in some ways, more aesthetically pleasing, I have all the happiness I need just by seeing all the books I own, unboxed, and in one location.

How do you shelve your books?

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10 Gift Ideas for Book Lovers

With the holidays approaching, I’ve been thinking about what kinds of things most book lovers would enjoy. Here’s a list of ideas I’ve brainstormed. (Note to friends and family: any/ all of these would be welcome!)

  1. Bookmarks. Honestly, we can never have enough bookmarks. It’s an inexpensive and thoughtful gift. Bookmarks are often one-sided, so bonus points if you write a personal message on the blank side.
  2. Books. This one seems obvious, but very few people gift me books. I guess they figure I’ve already read everything in existence? (I haven’t.) Sometimes gifted books are repeats, but one of my favorite things to ask for is a book that was meaningful to the giver in some way. It’s a great way to get to know friends and family better and makes a thoughtful gift. Because, honestly, who needs more stuff?* Bonus points if you write a note in the book (or on a post-it note in the book for those who abhor writing in books.)
  3. Alternate versions of the book lover’s favorite book. I already have multiple copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Pride and Prejudice, and Watchers. If someone found a unique or interesting copy of any of these books, a graphic novel, or an attractive cover, I’d think it was a wonderful gift. All book lovers have their favorite books. Knowing what they are opens up endless gift possibilities.
  4. Art prints inspired by favorite books. I love these prints from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Etsy.com is my favorite place to shop for handmade and unique items, and they have tons of book related artwork.
  5. Journals. Not all book lovers journal, but many of us do. Personally, I have a weakness for all paper products: notebooks, journals, scrapbooks. I’ve started to try getting better about writing reflections on things I’ve read. I think it’s a good way to deepen my relationship with books and get a better understanding of things I’ve read.
  6. Upcycled journals. I would say I’m the only one who loves these, because I don’t know anyone else who’s into them, but they’re all over Etsy.com, so I can’t be alone. People find old scrap paper, paper bags, old books, ephemera, and turn it into a hand bound journal. I would own 3,465 of them if I didn’t already have problems with books spilling onto every surface in my home. If you know someone with a weakness for secondhand shops and journals, this might be a unique and fun gift.
  7. A Book of the Month subscription. My sister in law got me this last year for my birthday, and it was great. I got to experience new books that I wouldn’t have gone looking for on my own. A few of the books were meh, but one of them is a new favorite (All the Ugly and Wonderful Things). I’m always looking for the next magical experience in books, and thanks to the BOTM club, I found it. (There are many other book subscription boxes out there; that one just happens to be the one I have experience with.)
  8. Bookish clothing. I’ve been lusting over a pair of tights with text from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (from Etsy.com). There’s a site with great scarves with text from all sort of books. Here’s a site with T-shirts, socks, and accessories.
  9. An autographed book. Back when my husband and I were first dating, he got me a copy of a signed, first edition of Watchers, by Dean Koontz. That was one of the (many) ways I knew he was a keeper.
  10. A Zen Pencils book/ print. This one’s a bit of a stretch, but most readers I know also have a thing for quotes. Though Gavin Aung Than, the artist behind Zen Pencils, doesn’t usually illustrate book quotes, he often does poetry and quotes from authors. Right now he’s got 15% off going on. (This post is in no way sponsored… I just love Zen Pencils.)

*Books aren’t stuff. They’re a magical transportive experience.

What kinds of bookish gifts do you like to give or receive?

How To Read Childhood Favorites the “Right” Way

IMG_9546I love rereading books that I used to love. Nostalgia books, I suppose you could call them.

It used to never be a problem for me, but as I’ve gotten more serious about writing, and as I’m critiquing other writer’s works on a weekly basis, it’s gotten more difficult not to read things with a critical eye.

Two years ago, I made the mistake of gifting my all time favorite book to my critique partner. As I reread it after I gifted it, I started seeing areas I knew he would criticize. And he did criticize those areas, and many more I hadn’t anticipated.

Suddenly, I didn’t love the book as much as I used to. It wasn’t the perfect example of a novel that I’d thought it was. I was disappointed, and for a long time, didn’t want to read any of my old favorites, worried that I wouldn’t love them as much as I used to.

Recently, I got the urge to reread The Forbidden Game trilogy, by LJ Smith. Without overthinking it, I started the first one.

I ended up reading it in two minds. My critical reader found all the flaws. (And there are flaws.) But my nostalgic reader found all the reasons I’d always loved it. And my nostalgic reader was louder.

It’s easy to find the flaws in something, to pick it apart, to criticize. That’s why anyone can do it.

And as a writer, it’s important that I can be constructively critical to my work and to the work of other writers who want to improve. Sometimes, as a reader, it’s important to do too. It’s good practice, and helps judge what works and what doesn’t.

But there are sometimes when I don’t want to pick things apart or find ways to improve something. Sometimes I just want to enjoy it, recapture that uncomplicated pleasure that came with reading it in the past.

The meaning of a particular book and how it resonates with the reader can change over time. There have been books I’ve connected with more or less over time, depending on where I was in my life.

But I don’t ever want to get to the point where I look at a beloved book, and only see the flaws. That serves no purpose. And I certainly don’t want to avoid rereading a favorite book out of fear.

All books have magic, and magic is a personal thing. But the key is that we, as readers, have to be complicit in creating that magic. It doesn’t exist without a reader who’s willing to be immersed in the book.

A book that resonates with me, at any point in my life, doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s an unrealistic standard. If it made me feel something deeply at any point, then it was “perfect” for me at that moment.

So, from now on, when I’m rereading a book, I’m going to keep in mind that it’s okay for it to have flaws, and those flaws don’t diminish its value one bit.

After all, at one point, I didn’t even see the flaws. They were always there, but I was so immersed in magic that I missed them. And I’m not going to let anyone take that away from me… not even myself.

Our Dark Duet- A Review

Our Dark Duet is the sequel to This Savage Song. The first part of the review will be spoiler-free. I’ll warn you before you get to the spoilers.

I read This Savage Song, by Victoria Schwab, last November, and I fell in love. I may have screamed in frustration when I found out there was going to be a sequel that wasn’t due out for 11 months! It had a fresh premise, interesting and flawed characters. And monsters. (I like monsters.) It also had moral dilemmas and was a thoroughly discussable book. I partially reviewed it here.

Our Dark Duet came out on June 13th, and I bought a Kindle copy immediately. The story picks up six months later, letting us know what August and Kate have been doing since This Savage Song ended. Kate’s been fighting monsters in another town, and August has been trying to save South City.

For me, Our Dark Duet is a solidly good book, though I didn’t love it as much as the first one. But apparently I’m in the minority there. Folks on Goodreads and Amazon have rated the second higher than the first.

The Spoiler Free Good

Our Dark Duet has all the things I loved about the first one, plus a new and fascinating monster. We get to see more from insight the Flynn compound, and wrap up with all the characters who were in the first book.

The Spoiler Free Bad

Part of what I loved in the first book was the relationship between August and Kate. It wasn’t just about chemistry and shipping them (though that was an element for me). It was also about how they grew to depend on one another. They’re separated for most of the second book.

*Spoiler alert below the picture, including discussion of the ending. You’ve been warned.*

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The Good, With Spoilers

I love that they finally try to kiss, and that it brings Kate’s soul to the surface. I loved that they explore moral complexity more. Kate’s soul is “stained” because she shot someone in self-defense. She admits that maybe she could have done something different, but she didn’t because she assumed the person was a monster. Previously, when August has been reaping a soul, the confession clearly shows that the person is a bad guy. But they reveal that other people have done bad things with good intentions, or that they did bad things previously, changed. I appreciated that acknowledgement, because ignoring that always bothered me in the first one.

The Bad, With Spoilers

I don’t love it that Kate and Ilsa die. I’ve been thinking about it (which is why this review is written almost 2 weeks after I finished the book), and it’s probably the right ending. But it feels so hopeless. Kate and Ilsa helped August keep himself sane and in check. They remind him of the best parts of himself. Having them die and then it just end makes me worry about what August will do going forward. Not that he’ll go dark or lose his way again. But just that we all need to connect with someone, or what’s the point? And I know August loves his parents (even though Henry is dying too… ugh), but it’s not the same. Ilsa and Kate were the people August connected to the most.

I guess the implication was that August and Soro are going to form more of a connection, but… I neither liked nor disliked Soro, so that’s not comforting to me.

It almost feels like a loose end to me, and I want to know what happens to August next. Even though, honestly, I probably wouldn’t like if the author tried to stretch the premise into another book. It’s over… but it doesn’t feel that way.

I don’t mind that Kate and Ilsa died; it kind of feels right to me. And it’s life, isn’t it, that sometimes we don’t get what we want, and endings hurt? I just… I guess I wanted more for Kate and August; a chance for them to see who they could be together when they were a team.

What did you think of this book or this series? Have there ever been books where you both loved and hated the ending?

Outgrowing Favorites

img_7812-2When I was a kid, I loved to make lists of my “favorites.” Favorite music, books, movies colors. Best friends, ranked.

Recently, my dad asked me if the Beatles were still my favorite music group. I hesitated before saying, “Well… one of my favorites.”

The truth is that I don’t really have favorites anymore. I can give you a list of maybe the 10 things I listen to most, or the 10 books I love best, but I don’t have one singular thing at the top of any list anymore.

Is it part of growing older? Is it part of my tastes becoming more discerning? Or is it part of that whole decision making process? You know how when you’re a kid, you’re so sure you have all the answers? And then you grow up and you’re like, “Why am I no longer sure of anything?”

I no longer have a single favorite author, but a list of authors I love. Even if I love a particular book, I don’t go out of my way to read everything that author’s written. I have playlists instead of listening to albums. Maybe that’s a good thing, the sign of a mind with broad interests.

Still, I kind of miss the simplicity of being able to declare: “This is my favorite.”

How about you? Has your ability to pick favorites changed as you’ve grown up?