Halloween Reads 2017

Every year since 2011 I have done a round-up this time of year of spooky and creepy reads that I have enjoyed. I have sometimes included horror recommendations from other people (like in last year’s post from Alison at Little Bookworm), but I haven’t read those because I am a chicken. This year, though, I am happy to supply several titles that seriously fit the bill. I personally know a couple of these authors, but honestly, that has no bearing on my recommendation. They are all great stories.

At the bottom you will find links to my previous years’ posts, and an apology from me for falling off the radar here for so long. First, on to the books!

Historical Fiction
Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt
Do you want to read about real witches? Or, at least, those accused of witchcraft. This story is based on court transcripts from the real Pendle witch trial in Lancashire, England in 1612. This story is captivating, heart-breaking and fascinating. Sharratt brings to life with startling clarity what happens when the worlds of organized religion collide and country tradition becomes suspect. You will love our heroine, Alizon, and your heart will ache for her. All she wanted to do was buy some pins from a pedlar, but unfortunately, the man dropped into a fit shortly after she talked to him. The day she is to start her first job at the big manor suddenly spins horribly wrong, and she finds herself in a living hell. I found this mesmerizing, and the fact that it is based on real events makes it horrifying. And if you like historical fiction that is amazingly well-done, check out the rest of Sharratt’s books.

Middle Grade Supernatural Fantasy
A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander
This MG title will satisfy children and adults alike. I mean, it has everything: Rosa, a spunky heroine with a rather unusual pastime, a spooky mystery to solve, and part of it is set in a library. What more could you ask for? I love all of Will Alexander’s books, and this one did not disappoint. It takes the tradition of Day of the Dead and turns it on its head. What happens when you do not properly remember those who have passed? I also love all the heart and soul entwined in those squiggly black lines: the importance of family, how just when things look the darkest, perhaps the talents we have will be most needed. Deep, lovely and engrossing, five stars. See my full review here.

Supernatural Mystery
The End of Temperance Dare by Wendy Webb
Creeptastic. Another great atmospheric tale from Minnesota’s own Wendy Webb, known around these parts as the Queen of the Northern Gothic. What do you get when you take an old remote sanitarium, turn it into an artists’ retreat, and a newbie director comes to work there? A creepy story full of twists and turns, things that go bump in the night and possibly much more. Retiring director Penelope Dare gives new director Norrie Harper a first day she will never forget, and things just escalate from there. Norrie learns the story of the Dare family, who ran the place way back when. Then there is the odd situation with the dollhouse in the playroom. Why do the dolls at the table look familiar? Who is the handsome man who lives in the house on the edge of the grounds? Why is the old guy at the boathouse yelling about death? And who was Temperance Dare, anyway? Webb invokes the setting for all it is worth, and to great effect. The characters are well-built, down to the artists who arrive for their retreat, only to discover they each share a surprising statistic. This is one to snuggle down with, with the wind blowing outside. Lock the doors. Lock the windows. Aw hell, just read it in the daytime.

Classic
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
I tried to read this. I really did. But it took weeks for me to get to page 173. In the Introduction, the author himself says that he thought the book didn’t really pick up steam until the second part, the narrative of Miss Clack. So I’m determined to get that far. And I’m almost there. To me, this book is very much a period piece, along the lines of The Remains of the Day (which I never finished either). If you like that type of thing, you may like this. There is a stolen jewel, nefarious monks (not really monks, but guardian priests), and at least one dead body (I am hoping it is soon). I don’t want to inject my pessimism on this title too much here, but it is disappointing. I had been hearing about this for years, and have even heard of people re-reading it. That now sounds to me like an impossibility. The significance of this title is that it is considered to be the first English detective novel. Published in 1868, it is the best-known of Collins’ novels, who is known as the first English writer of detective and mystery novels. I may try The Woman in White if I can find it, as that has been listed among the 100 Greatest Novels of all Time by Robert McCrum and made the top 100 in the BBC survey The Big Read.

Mystery
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
I haven’t finished this one yet, but I am certain I will. I know, that’s two books that I did not finish in one round-up. But I am confident that this one will deliver, if only because the first chapter had me thinking about it for weeks. I picked it up at work as an ARC, just before release. I read the first chapter, and felt such foreboding that I had to put it down. But now I’ve picked it up again and I am on page 143. Or am I? The page numbers are not really sequential. I am reading a book within a book. It is a story about a manuscript, and how reading it changed an editor’s life. But it is also a cracking good manuscript and I want to know whodunit. I also want to know how reading a manuscript can ostracize you from your life.

The story starts with an editor at her home called Crouch End. By the end of that first short chapter, we know that she no longer owns Crouch End, most of her friends won’t speak to her, and she is wishing she had never picked this up. The manuscript in question has a very Hercule Poirot flavor to it, although the detective is German (a camp survivor) and his name is Pund. I love Hercule and I love this. I want to know who is killing off the residents of Saxby-on-Avon and whether or not the deaths are related to the development scheme that would destroy a local beloved wood. I hate those schemes. This has promised to be like nothing else I’ve ever read and the Agatha similarities aside, I am sure the conceit of it will prove that to be the case. If this one is half as good as it feels right now, I’m going to be up late this weekend again.


I don’t have a children’s book this year, mostly because I simply haven’t had time to look for one. I didn’t go to a trade convention this year and I have not been reading catalogs as much as I normally do. But I saw this flowchart yesterday and the lovely ladies over at Pages Unbound have graciously given me permission to post it here. If you are still looking for a great Halloween Read, check this out! I have only read two of the titles on this chart, so I am happy to say that I have my work cut out for me.

I have been traveling a lot – three trips in two months. And while that is not an excuse (I’ve been in a lot of bookstores, too!), I want all of you to know that I did not intend to really take such an extended hiatus. If you are looking for more Halloween Reads, you can read my previous posts in these links, here and here and here. I’ve got some earlier ones and one that I had to post on my other blog, here. I rescued my earlier posts from the Examiner website which has disappeared. There are lots of good tales included! And I will be back soon. I promise I have a good reason for all this being away.

A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander

As October quickly zooms by, I am hard at work trying to get my Halloween Reads post done. This title will go on that list, but I wanted to do more than a capsule review on it. It deserves its own space.

I knew it would be good, having read Will’s previous books. But it was better than good. Here we have another stellar story from the indomitable Will Alexander.

You think you are going to get a ghost story. Well, in a way, you do. But first, Will takes us on a route around the ghost stories. Along the way, we get the story of two families, and two kids. Rosa and Jasper come together at a time when Rosa thinks her world has ended. We get little pieces of that story as the book goes on. Jasper thinks his world is humming along fine, until suddenly, it’s not.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, but let me say this: Will is a magician. He can take these little squiggly black lines, and invent worlds out of them, and make them sing and give them heart. He makes them into great truths and touches a reader right in the feels. In this book, he has invented a new profession (an appeasement specialist) with accompanying tools and tricks of the trade, he has created a whole set of rules for how ghosts behave (they get angry if you lock them out), and he has delved into the heart of a 12 year old girl and told us what really matters to her. It’s not that her new home has no windows (though that is understandably annoying), or that her mother took this job that makes no sense for her abilities. No, what really matters is who she is missing.

Rosa is a strong female character who just happens to be a kid. She moves through her day using anger as a shield, to push through anything that might stop her and remind her of what she has lost. Sadness slows her down. Her new home feels more like a tomb than a home. There might be some significance to that. Her mother is behaving strangely, and Rosa can’t make sense of anything. I love how true and real Rosa feels. Her thoughts tell us that she is a smart girl yet she is vulnerable, and self-aware enough to know it.

Oh, and did I mention that the whole thing takes place in a library? Because where else would an appeasement specialist live? Complete with an actual snotty librarian. I loved Mrs. Jellynip. She says all the things that an adult is supposed to say, but Rosa doesn’t miss a thing. “Mrs. Jellynip went away without bothering to learn Rosa’s name. Then she watched Rosa sideways to make sure she didn’t touch any of the maps. That made Rosa want to touch maps. She wanted to jump up and down on a big pile of maps. But she didn’t.”

I cannot help but love a book that gives us the untold lives of books. Why would libraries be haunted? It’s because of all the stories, of course. There is a sense of history in this story that reminds us to honor those who came before. It may be a nod to the Day of the Dead tradition, as Alexander is Latino. It is very clear (to an adult reader, at least) that we must not forget those we love. Say their name. It matters.

The properly unhaunted place in the title turns out to be haunted in all sorts of ways which unfold bit by bit, and along the way, we get a heck of a good story. There is a Renaissance Fair, complete with cosplay, and in addition to the aforementioned librarian, one very stuffy town leader. In the end, it is sweet, a little sad, and very satisfying. This is a Middle Grade novel, but I think kids of all ages (and adults) will find something to love here.

As you may have noticed, I was on a bit of a hiatus. It was largely unintended. I took a part time job and whoosh, there went all my time. Then I took time off from that, to take some trips to research and work on my novel. I am amazed at how much time has gone by since my last post. But I’ve got some good stuff on the docket, including my annual Halloween Reads post, and I hope you will join me. There are so many good books out there!

Book Review: City of Saints & Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson

You may remember that February was my month of reading mysteries. This was one of my February reads, and one of the top books I have read yet this year. I gave it Five Stars on GoodReads. And then I had to calm down a bit because yeah, man, it was THAT good. And as for the publisher’s description, no, not Gone Girl. There was nothing unreliable about this narrator. Nothing at all. This was Girl with a Dragon Tattoo meets Life After Life. So many choices. So many unanswered questions.

This story was riveting. I rocketed through it in two giant 200-page gulps, not regretting a moment. I felt like a ping-pong ball, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the story unfolding in front of me. The Kenyan setting was lush, the characters were whole. I especially loved Tina, AKA Tiny Girl, whose life is turned upside down when her mother is killed.

This is a rich story, full of consequences. She and her mother are refugees from a village that is too close to the militia fighting in Congo. Tina spends the book finding out just how close her mother is to the fight. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say that it is very complex, and dangerous. They land at a rich white guy’s house, the Greybill mansion. Greybill works for the mining industry in Kenya, has married a local (albeit rich) girl, and lives up on a hill far above the common rabble.

There are so many layers here, honestly. Anderson’s descriptions of the grimy port town of Sangui City (yes, that means blood) put you right in the middle of it, and Tiny Girl’s Rules let you know just how precarious each day is. Most chapters start with a Rule, and the first one is: You don’t exist. She becomes invisible so that she can survive. When her plan for revenge takes her back into her old life, she must walk a very high tightrope, and you, dear reader, will walk that tightrope with her. Tina spends her days dodging dangerous thugs and stealing from others. She belongs to a gang, but she’s not exactly part of the gang. That all comes together later, too.

I was with Tiny Girl the whole time, careening from one situation to another, from the dusty streets of Sangui City to the carpeted halls of the Greybill mansion, from the decrepit hospital to the dense, humid forest. This was gripping, compelling, full of details and characters that made it all seem like a newsreel, unspooling in front of you. All the human emotions and realities collide with the greed of business and the lust for power, capturing children in its grip and making them old – and wise – before their time.

It’s plain that the lives of the gang, street kids taken in to do dirty work by a local crime boss, are very real. You don’t invent that kind of detail from whole cloth. These kids are waifs, starving. Tina becomes one of them when she is “rescued” by one of their leaders, while trying to steal a mango. She is on the streets, because she doesn’t want to go to the convent where she hid her sister. You can’t exact revenge from behind a convent wall. So there are sinners, and the tattoos on Tiny Girl’s arms tell the stories of the saints.

Even after Tina is thrust back into her old home, where her mother was a maid, she still thinks like a street kid. She is always watching her back, always on the lookout for what she can get out of a situation. Rule 12: always be ready to bolt.

And yet, I really liked Tina. Tina is smart. Really smart. She knows how to read a room. She knows when to say what, and when to shut up. She has another Rule: thieves don’t have friends. So Boyboy isn’t her friend – he’s a useful thing to have around. He can help her hack into security systems, steal information, find schedules and floorplans. And even though he is the only one she lets up on her rooftop, he is definitely not her boyfriend. He’s got it just as rough as she does, even if he does have a family: a poor gay kid in a town that does not suffer softness.

Everything about this story works: the setting, the characters, the intrigue. It is a thriller in a slow-burn kind of way, though things really do get rocking fairly quickly. Piecing together the puzzle of what happened with Tina’s mom, and then finally, what is going on in the village in the Congo, and how it relates to the house on the hill, will keep you up way past your bedtime. Just when you think you are going to solve one mystery, another one pops up in its place.

I would love to see more of Tina. I loved her and her whole crew – yes, even Michael. And my heart feels for her and Kiki, and I want to know more than anything what happens to them.

So yeah, five stars. And I never give stars. I don’t see the point of differentiating between three stars and four stars. And one star is just too mean. So I only give five stars. But then rarely.

I don’t know if there is a sequel coming, but if one pops up, I’m all over it.

Tolkien Reading Day 2017

I hadn’t really anticipated becoming wholly consumed by Tolkien during the month of March. But that appears to be what has happened.

First, I heard about this from the bloggers over at Pages Unbound. They put out a call on Twitter for bloggers to take part in their two-week Tolkien blog fest, which would feature posts they wrote plus lots of guest posts. I was happy to write a post about how Tolkien has influenced my work, which can be seen here. And there are lots of other posts about all things Tolkien, so get on over and check them out.

Then I saw a challenge on Instagram. I do a lot of photo challenges (which, if you don’t know, are basically lists of prompts that you interpret and then share with a hashtag), and this was to be a month-long Tolkien theme under the #MiddleEarthMarch tag. I thought that sounded like loads of fun, so I was eager to participate in that. This also included a Lord of the Rings read-along, which was preceded by a read-along of The Hobbit, where we followed along on #febandbackagain.

I had a blast with the prompts, and had fun going through my books and gathering together all my Tolkien-related titles. Come to find out that I actually have a pretty good collection! I am especially happy with a special edition I picked up at a con a year or so ago for $20 – it is the green leather one in a slipcase, with runes on the cover and spine. It’s gorgeous, and a lovely addition to my library (but really, I’m a sucker for anything in a slipcase or a boxset).

On my #RockMyTBR challenge, I had already ear-marked a Tolkien title, The Silmarillion, for April. But I substituted the above titles, which was handy because I found that either I do not own The Silmarillion or I simply couldn’t find it. I just swapped my previous March title with April. And then GoodReads changed its rules so that you could count rereads as part of your challenge goal, so that helped speed me along.

Before I saw the Pages Unbound post, I honestly didn’t even realize there was going to be a Tolkien Reading Day in March. March 25 is the anniversary of the day of the defeat of Sauron, in case you are wondering. The celebration is sponsored by the Tolkien Society, and there are lots of celebrations worldwide. This worked out perfectly for me, since I read that scene in the book on the night of March 24! I was able to keep on track with my reading in the read-along, though I am sad to say that I hardly read anything else during March. But it was worth it.

I never read The Lord of the Rings until after college. So this was only maybe my third time reading the series. The last time was when the movies came out. When I was in high school, fantasy was a class for stoners and slackers. I loved English and reading, so instead, I took Shakespeare and English lit. Well, let that be a lesson to you. Don’t skip a class if it sounds interesting! Had I taken fantasy in high school, I might have been a decade ahead on my Tolkien obsession!

And now I am well and fully hooked. I have always loved the movies, and my son and I did a binge watch of the extended version DVDs over the holidays. So that set me up nicely for all the reading. Now I am looking forward to The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion. I have been looking around, and it sounds like this is the order which is most recommended in reading Tolkien (that is, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion).

I am very much looking forward to the upcoming Beren and Luthien, which is being released in May, and was edited by Christopher Tolkien and illustrated by Alan Lee. Many Tolkien fans will know that this story of star-crossed lovers was very close to Tolkien’s heart. He even had the name Luthien engraved on his wife’s headstone when she died, and then instructed that Beren should be engraved under his name (they share a headstone).

I’ve long had a wish to go to Oxford, and see his haunts. I would also love to go to New Zealand, where you can see the set for the Shire, and have lunch at the Green Dragon. So go ahead, Tolkien merch, take all my money! I don’t even care.

 

Reading Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes Series (Books 1-5)
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I love a good mystery. I had some stacking up here, so I decided to make February my mysteries month. Most of my TBR for the month was mystery and thriller. Books I had been meaning to read for ages, most of them. And I love to curl up with a good mystery on a cold night. The more bodies, the better!

I’ve got a beautiful box set of Sherlock Holmes books (it was part of my #RockMyTBR list). I think I got it at a thrift store, because I know that I didn’t pay much for it. And I didn’t take the books out of the box for years. When I finally did, they were pristine – the spines had never even been cracked.

The books are lovely little hardcovers, small enough to fit in your hand, with gilt lettering and gold fore edges (the part of the page you see when it’s closed). The finish is an interesting wood grain, but it’s black, so hard to photograph. I love pretty books. I just can’t tell you how nice it is to sit down with a book that is lovely to hold and lovely to look at, and of course, the story has to be good, too.

Now, I knew these were good stories. But I had never actually read them. So I added them to the stack. The stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were a bit different than what I expected, though. Not so many dead bodies as misunderstandings, jilted lovers, and just plain con men. But that was okay. The writing held up, and I wanted to get past the shows I had watched (both the BBC production and the CBS show Elementary) to the real deal.

Here are the five books I read.

A Study in Scarlet/ The Sign of the Four (#1 & #2)

The first book was two stories in one. I had heard the titles before, but not the stories. I am so glad I started at the beginning, though. Here we get the complete timeline of how Watson and Sherlock met, how Watson comes to understand him and his methods, and how they grow to be close friends. We also get Watson meeting Mary! The first story is not all that memorable itself, but worth reading just for these character-building reasons. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that it included a large bit of backstory set in the American West, which took away from the mood I typically go to Sherlock for. The second story is interesting, a bit more exotic, and complex enough to hold your attention. I didn’t agree whole-heartedly with the way it was presented, as it was less than of a whodunit than a how-dunit, but that’s okay. It had lots of color, shall we say? Convicts and con men and double-crosses – much of it set in colonial India, with all that entails.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (#3)

This is an eclectic collection of stories in which many of those featured don’t actually involve crimes. I dearly love the different voices of Watson and Holmes, as they are clearly delineated. And finally by this point I was able to get away from picturing Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in my head! This was a struggle in the first volume, let me tell you. These are all very quick and somewhat slight, but with good detail and lots of that murky London fog. There are 12 stories in all. Some of them were very curious, and I especially liked A Scandal in Bohemia (in which we meet Irene Adler!), The Red-Headed League, and the Blue Carbuncle. Just about every kind of crime you can imagine is included in here.

The Memories of Sherlock Holmes (#4)

I found these a bit better than the last volume, because they were more involved. So many of the stories had quotes that I had heard elsewhere – “the curious incident of the dog in the night time,” and the reference to the code word Norbury. I love seeing how these things were treated in the BBC production, and how they originally appeared. That is really why I wanted to read the books in the first place. Again, though, a lot of these stories were nebulous as to their actual endings. They were cons, or jilted love, or some such things. I liked The Musgrave Ritual (which harkens a bit towards The Hound of the Bakervilles) and The Naval Treaty best, I think. But they were all very good, and included such varied settings and issues, that it really kept me reading.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (#5)

This is a full-length story, and I really do like it when he hunkers down and make a novel out of it. I loved the setting of this – the atmospheric spookiness of the moors. It is done so well, it made me want to pick up Wuthering Heights just to keep being spooked! It’s almost like the setting is another character in this novel. It has much more to do with setting than the short stories all set in London. And the story was intriguing, full of foreboding. There are all kinds of threats, hair-raising adventures on the moor, Neolithic ruins (about which I greatly enjoyed Watson’s ruminations!), and all sorts of folks pretending to be something they are not. It keeps you hopping. I saw this as a stage play when I was really young, and while it was a professional children’s theater production, I don’t remember much of the story. I just knew there was this black baying hound off stage. It suffers some from being produced, I think. You just need to get your head on to the moors.

I’ll continue on with the series, though I don’t have any more of the volumes until The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, which is apparently the final book. I wouldn’t want to skip ahead, though. I think the character-building is one of the best things about this series. There has to be a reason why these characters have had the staying power they have – Conan Doyle takes great pains to make it just right, to make their relationships ring true, and to give each person a distinct voice.

If you like mysteries or like reading classics, you should definitely get your hands on these. There are a multitude of editions, as they are in the public domain. But it’s worth picking up a nice volume. You’ll want to keep them.

RockMyTBR Challenge

I love this challenge. I tried to do it last year, sort of. I made it maybe two months. But I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t have a post. So here I am, holding myself accountable. Unfortunately, I am too late to link up with the intro post. This is hosted by Sarah at The YA Book Traveler and I am so glad she’s doing it again! It’s a great way to be sure your books are not languishing too long on the shelf! I tend to use my library a lot, so this helps me add to that.

Since last year didn’t go so well, I have laid out some rules for this year for myself.

My Rules for #RockMyTBR

You must make the TBR from books you already own, whether they are packed away, on your shelves or in piles on your floor does not matter.

You can put books anywhere on the TBR for the year, using whatever criteria you want to read whatever you want whenever you want.

You can switch out books for another on your TBR, but only WITHIN your TBR. If you trade a top book for a later book, you cannot trade that top book again. You must read it when you come to it.

You cannot add any newly purchased books to this TBR. This is only for books you owned at the beginning of the year.

I reserve the right to add any books from my shelves, but only in addition to the books already on the list.

These kind of fall in line with what Sarah has already outlined, but I am really going to be strict with myself. That’s why I’m letting myself trade within the TBR, but making sure to put limits on that. I figure if I have a book that I want to trade more than once, then I probably don’t want to read that book anyway, and I might as well get rid of it.

Without further ado, here is my plan for #RockMyTBR for 2017!

January – The Star-Touched Queen (also for #DAReadathon and #boutofbooks) Done!

February – Sherlock Holmes box set (four books)

 

March – Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor (have read the first one)

April – The Silmarillion by Tolkien and The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

May – Very Good Lives by JK Rowling

June – Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

July – Game of Thrones book 1 by George RR Martin

August – Mary E Pearson Remnant Chronicles series

September – The Late Homecomer by Kao Kalia Yang

October – Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde (have read the first three but need to start over)

November – A Breathtaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

December – Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow by Andy Sturdevant

Wish me luck!

 

Dumbledore’s Army Diverse #DAReadathon Wrap-Up

I finished the #DAReadathon!

I had a great time reading these books. Oh my gosh. They were SO good. I didn’t complete my whole TBR but I made a sizable dent and I am very happy with that. You can see my original post here.

I started with The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, which I had always heard was very beautifully written. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is not only beautifully written, but it is an utterly beautiful story. This book is gorgeous in every way. I gave it five stars on GoodReads (and I never give star ratings!). I had received this book back when it was released in May. I actually won it from a GoodReads giveaway – so thanks GoodReads and Griffin Teen!

I found this story to be breath-taking. I don’t want to say too much because Spoilers but just trust me. It envisioned a world bigger than imagination. This book takes place in a Persian-inspired world, and it is full of cultural references. I loved that, and I loved the world and the characters. There are themes of love, and life, and death and what it all means. The writing is LUSH. I am very glad that I finally read this one! This also Rocks My TBR because I’ve had it since May. This was for the Impedimenta prompt. Here’s a taste:

“Neither the secret whirring song of the stars nor the sonorous canticles of the earth knew the language that sprang up in the space between us. It was a dialect of heartbeats, strung together with the lilt of long suffering and the incandescent hope of an infinite future.”  p332

Then it was on to Labyrinth Lost, by Zoraida Cordova, which I had won in a chat on Twitter in early November. This fit perfectly into the Protego prompt – #ownvoices. I really had to be restrained waiting this long to read it. It takes place in Brooklyn, but the MC is a bruja, which is a sort of melded cultural group that has aspects of Santeria and pagan ideals coupled with the Mexican Day of the Dead rituals. I loved Alex, and I loved the way this story wove itself around a completely new world and claimed it as its own. It felt rich and satisfying.

I then picked up The Upside of Unrequited, which was fantastic. This is outside my typical oeuvre, because I rarely read YA contemporary, but I’m glad I read it. This was for the Reducto prompt. I had been talking with someone on Twitter – or some such thing – and Becky Albertalli chimed in and I liked her so much I moved this right up my TBR (I received my copy at the Heartland Fall Forum). It was funny and bittersweet, saved from being saccharin by amazing insights and deadpan humor. I found myself laughing out loud quite a bit! The young love aspect is enriched by the non-traditional family and Molly’s issues with her own body image and questions about life. I loved this book so much that I offered to trade it to another blogger so it could get more love, and in return I get a copy of History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera! I am so excited to read that, thanks to Kendice, who blogs with Emily at EmilyReadsEverything.

The books I didn’t get to were The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig (Expecto Patronum prompt) and The Forbidden Wish (which was my blogger rec under the Lumos prompt). And The Sun Is Also a Star, for the Stupefy prompt, which was buried in my Christmas booktree. I also didn’t get a book for the Expelliarmus prompt. I really should have thought more about this. I’d like to do it again!

I did a little bit of score-keeping, and here is what I came up with for House Points. Go Ravenclaw!

  • I read 913 pages so at 1 point per each 10 pages, that gives me 91.3 House Points. (I was on page 235 of Unrequited when the challenge ended.) 336 +342 +235
  • I completed two books so I get 5 points for each, which is 10 House Points.
  • I reviewed two books on GoodReads. I don’t know if that counts. But if it does, that gives me 10 House Points. If it only counts for blog reviews, then I did not get any of those posted yet, but look for my upcoming reviews!
  • I posted an image of my #DAReadathon ID on Twitter for 1 House Point.
  • I tweeted using the hashtag at least five times. That’s how I got the blogger rec (two different people recommended the same book!). I posted a picture of my TBR on Instagram for an additional point (with 70 Likes, tyvm). So that makes 6 House Points for social media (which is unbelievably low of the 20 points possible).

This gives me a Grand Total of 27 + 91.3 = 118.3

All in all, I’m pretty happy that I stuck to my TBR and got to read some really good, culturally rich books. I think this was a fantastic challenge from beginning to end. I loved the Harry Potter element and being a member of Dumbledore’s Army, as well as the spell prompts. I also loved that you had a specific prompt to get recommendations, and that it really made you think about what you were reading. Very fun, and I would do this again in a heartbeat!

This weekend I’m nibbling at the #24in28 Readathon, but I am really not doing a good job at that. I was all set to get in a good hunker-down reading day yesterday, but somehow it didn’t happen. Next up I’ve almost got my #RockMyTBR Challenge list. More reading today!

#DAReadathon + #RockMYTBR Challenge + #BoutofBooks Readathon + TBR

What better way to start the New Year than with a reading binge? I saw the announcement of the #DAReadathon Challenge on Twitter just before Christmas and while I had it in my head I simply couldn’t sit down to sort it all out. This is one of the more complicated challenges I have seen, but since it involves Harry Potter and reading more diverse books, I simply couldn’t pass it up without at least trying.

Many of you know that the diverse books movement has been a big thing throughout the past year. It would be nice if we could say that it wasn’t needed, or that it had been going on a lot longer than that. But judging from some major faux pas recently by major published books, it is still needed, and we need to realize that those from marginalized groups need to have their own voices, and need to have representation in the publishing industry.

Publishing is just telling stories, after all, and how can we say we are doing a good job of that when we aren’t telling all the stories – just select ones that are curated by one race, one gender or one worldview?

So in my own small little way, I’m going to be working on this. I’m doing this challenge, and I’m sad to say that for some of these prompts, I’m not sure what I will read. I wish I could readily answer each one. Clearly, I have some work to do.

The challenge began yesterday (oops!) and goes until January 15. Each of the books should fit in with one of the prompts, which are named after spells in the Harry Potter fandom. Since this is one of my favorite fandoms, I was very attracted to this idea. Also, for those of you who don’t know, the DA in the challenge name stands for Dumbledore’s Army. Well, we need this more than ever now, don’t we? I like everything about the way this is set up.

Here are some of my picks. I’ll need help with this one, so if you have suggestions, please let me know in the comments! Or find me on Twitter or Instagram. I want to hear recs, people!

Expecto Patronum – diverse book featuring issue of personal significance to you or a loved one – I’m going with The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig – because it deals with a girl’s relationship to her father. I imagine that Nix’s is more complicated than mine, since her father wants to return to where her mother died, and possibly could. And mine, well, can’t. But it sounds eerily familiar and I am sure this will bring up some long-buried feelings for me. Plus, all the cultures involved just sound fantastic. And I have an ARC of the sequel, so must read this first!

Expelliarmus – diverse book featuring a marginalised group you don’t often read about – So maybe this would be LBGTQIA? Because I’ve not read much in that area.

Protego – Read an #ownvoices book for this prompt – Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova – I won this in a Death Day chat back in early November. I really have been paying much more attention to the traditions of Day of the Dead lately and I am very excited to read a book by someone who grew up in that culture and has a story that centers around it. I had to resist picking this up earlier to save it for this challenge, so now it’s time!

Reducto – a book that empowers women from all different walks of life – Here we have The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli. I received an ARC of this at Heartland Fall Forum, and then I interacted with Becky on Twitter a bit, and well, bam, this shot up to the top of my TBR. This features an overweight teen who is a bit confused about her sexuality, and has a twin sister. I am going out of a limb a bit here to say that it empowers women, but if there is an Upside to Unrequited Love, it has to be empowering, right? This releases in April so I am excited to be reading it so early.

Impedimenta – a diverse book that has been on your TBR for far too long! – This has to be The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi. I have had this since it released and it is so beautiful, and I have heard so much about it, but I have only picked it up once. And now that the sequel is coming out, I really need to get on it. I love following her on Twitter and Instagram so I am really looking forward to finally reading this!

Stupefy – a diverse book that has stunned the internet with all its well-deserved hype – The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon – this is a contemporary, which I don’t often read, which is also good for me to do once in a while. This title has landed on many year-end best lists, and I have heard it compared to Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, so of course that piqued my curiosity. Then I won a copy, and well, here it is!

Lumos – a diverse book that was recommended by one of your fellow book bloggers – I would like this to be the forthcoming History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, recommended recently by the always-reliable Brittany at Brittany’s Book Rambles, but alas, it does not come out until January 17 and I don’t have an ARC. In her last BBTC chat, she featured this book and Adam took part. It was a delight. But I must find me something else so I’ll be asking my blogger friends!

From the website of Aente, Read at Midnight, the host of this challenge, here is her brief definition of what a diverse book is: “Any book that features a diverse experience such as LGBTQIA, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender diversity, indigenous, neurodiversity, people with disabilities.”

I still have two slots to fill, so I’ll be actively looking for those books which can fulfill these areas. I would love to find something with Native Americans (I really love all I’ve read by Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie), or something that I perhaps hadn’t thought about reading at all. I don’t know, it could be anything. The bottom line here is that this challenge is already a win for me, because it has me searching my book piles (and my booktree, because there is The Sun Is Also a Star, about halfway down! Which is why it is not pictured above!) for those stories.

There is a points component to this challenge too, but I won’t be worrying about that. I honestly have enough to do in the next two weeks. But this is a great start to my year and I’m really looking forward to it! What are your favorite diverse reads?

Bonus: For this challenge, I finally went to Pottermore and found out what my Patronus is! And while it was quite a process, I discovered that it is the “unusual” Patronus of a Leopardess!

I’m also going to try this year again to do the #RockMyTBR challenge from Sarah at The YA Book Traveler. I fell off the wagon on this one last year. And this week I’m doing the #BoutofBooks readathon (which is only one week, from Jan 2 to Jan 8). Here is the info on the #Bout of Books Readathon, for which I will be using the same books as for the #DAReadathon, and then if I run out of books, I will just add more! The stack helps me to put blinders on and means that I really will complete the books that I have listed.

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda Shofner and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, January 2nd and runs through Sunday, January 8th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 18 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog– From the Bout of Books team

 

 

Best Books of 2016, Part II

Here is part two of my Best Books post, in which I wax rhapsodic about another YA fantasy, some mysteries, some middle grade and a few children’s picture books! I hope you have a chance to check some of these out! And if you missed it, check out part one of my post of Best Books of 2016!

Now, if you know me, you know how much I love YA. And if you know how much I love YA, you know how much I love Leigh Bardugo. I didn’t miss the sequel to Six of Crows, and I didn’t leave it off my list! Here we go, making the world right:

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Yes, this is one of my favorite reads. I am, however, still in a bit of huff because the series is over. This book is the second one in the Six of Crows series. I reviewed Six of Crows here. Have I told you lately how much I love these characters? I love them so much, it hurts to say goodbye. In fact, I had a really hard time getting into this book. I had to enact the buddy-read method to get me to keep moving forward – and so that I would have someone to cry with when it was over. Okay, I didn’t cry (much). But it was still very sad. Nevertheless, pain is a part of life, and I suggest you get your hands on all the Leigh Bardugo books you can carry, and just sit down and read them all straight through. You’ll have a helluva hangover, but it will be so worth it. This setting, the writing, the story, the characters – you will be in love. (Bonus: I did preorder this, and I did get the most coolest preorder swag ever! More on that later.)

Mystery

In the Moors, Unraveled Visions, Beneath the Tor (Shaman Mystery series)
by Nina Milton

I’ve recently discovered a series published by a Minnesota publisher, Flux, which has a mystery imprint called Midnight Ink. I was looking for books about shamans, and stumbled across the Shaman Mysteries series by Nina Milton, about a modern shamanic practitioner named Sabbie Dare. Not only is it fascinating to hear about how she plies her trade, but the mysteries are good too. They are set on the Somerset moors, which only adds to the overall appeal. There are three in the series and I read them out of order, which does not seem to matter too awful much. Each one of them pulled me in and kept me going late into the night. I love Sabbie and I am totally rooting for her, even if she does have a habit of sticking her nose in where it doesn’t belong. Bonus: this counts as research for my work in progress!

Middle Grade

Sticks and Stones by Abby Cooper

What a lovely, refreshing, too-true bit of magical realism! I met Abby while we were both working on a project last spring, and I was so happy to find that her debut novel is every bit as effervescent as she is. It is a story about bullying, but also about self-confidence, about being true to yourself, and about the rigors of junior high. The main character may have a made-up condition, but the challenges she faces are as real as anything you will ever read. I loved Elyse, and her chirpy voice is spot-on and feels like someone I know. I am looking forward to more from this author!

The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee by Erin Petti

This is delightful. That is the first word that comes to mind. This was one of my top Halloween Reads this year (check the link for the full review). It is a bit creepy, yes, and in the way of children’s literature, involves giving the children a great deal of license to do as they wish. But it is a lovely story, a bit of a mystery, a love story and a ghost story all rolled into one. The construct of the main character being very curious and loving scientific method means that this is very literally used in the story, which is one way of slipping in exposure to that. But Thelma is so delightful, and her need is so dire, that we cannot help but root for her. There is even an online component. I received this at the Heartland Fall Forum book show.

Children’s Picture Books

I just got my first issue of Horn Book, which had a very cool subscription deal that I couldn’t pass up. And it reminded me again how much I love a really beautiful children’s book. I will highlight a couple here that came to me over the past year.

One North Star: A Counting Book
by Phyllis Root
Illustrations by
Beckie Prange and Betsy Bowen

This is flat-out gorgeous. I love the combined woodcut and watercolor illustrations, the deep colors, and the depiction of the natural world. It is a counting book, too, which is absolutely fun. It takes the reader deep into caves, under water, and into a bear’s den. The pages are lush and rich with detail, while at the same time being very simple. I also like that there is information in the back on the different habitats depicted. If you have not yet discovered Phyllis Root, also check out her Plant a Pocket of Prairie book, also illustrated by Betsy Bowen, or any of her other many titles. This is my top children’s book of 2016! I received a copy of this book from the publisher, University of MN Press.

 

Tinyville Town Gets to Work! By Brian Biggs

This book reminds me of the old Richard Scarry books I had when I was a kid (which, yes, I still have), with its busy bright pages full of people doing all kinds of things. This is the first in the Tinyville Town series by Biggs. I got to meet the author at the Heartland Fall Forum in the Moveable Feast, where he told us about this book. It describes a very big process (building a bridge) in a very simple way, and celebrates the idea of how people working together can make great things happen. I look forward to more in this series!

Wake Up, Island by Mary Casanova
Woodcuts by Nick Wroblewski

This details a similar landscape as One North Star but contrasts with its very delicate, lovely illustrations that also include woodcuts but with a softer palette. This book shows the whole world waking up – not just a sleepy bear scratching his back, but pine trees that stretch, and lichen that warms a rock. This is full of fun sounds – mallard wings “wuff-wuffing,” a chickadee calls, a red squirrel chatters and munches. Children will get a feel for the whole world that is contained in this tiny spot of the north woods. I received this book from the Minnesota publishers reception at the Heartland Fall Forum.

There are so many good books out there. This is a much longer list than I typically give. I keep thinking of more books I want to add. But hopefully, one of these will appeal to you, and you will find the book that you need at the time that you need it. Because books really do change lives, and they really do matter. I hope you have many great books come your way in 2017!

Best Books of 2016, Part 1

I love my stats. I am still not sure if I’ll make my reading challenge goal for this year – I had hiked it up to 80 books, even though last year I had not made my goal of 75. Call it a fit of optimism. But the year before last I read 100. Now my challenge shows me that I have 1 day and 10 hours to make my goal. This year, they have a feature called My Year in Books, which is like catnip to me. My longest book was Crooked Kingdom at 536 pages (every moment of it worthwhile); my average page count per book was 296 pages. These 72 books I’ve read so far this year amount to 20,439 pages. I like that. It’s a nice round number. I only wish I had more reading stats.

What I do have is a list of the books I liked the most. The ones that stuck with me. Here I’ll highlight my favorite reads of the year, covering many genres. My top three (no surprise) are all YA fantasy.

I want to say that YA fantasy has really stepped it up in recent years, but maybe it is just that I have only begun paying closer attention since I started blogging. I have gotten to know many bloggers on Twitter and Instagram who focus on YA, so that might be leading me more towards that genre as a whole. I am not a huge fan of contemporary (though I love Rainbow Rowell and I am looking forward to Adam Silvera’s new one), but I can’t get enough of the fantasy.

Without further ado, here are my top reads of 2016!

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

This one has stuck itself deep into my heart, deep into my psyche and my imagination. It is one of the most highly imaginative, well-executed books that I think I have ever read. It feels cut out of whole cloth. It is magical, awe-inspiring – the superlatives do not do it justice. What Kristoff has done here is imagined a whole new world – one with three suns, then created a lexicon that uses that specific element – days are not days, they are “turns” and so these characters do not say ‘some day,’ but “some turn.” He has then populated that landscape with an incredible cityscape, and other continents that share their own incredible histories, and then peopled that world with characters that make you cringe and make you cry, that you will root for and fear all at once. The writing, the very magic of the words and sentences, is sublime. There is even – wait for it – a vast, cavernous library that has its own surprise, and is prowled by actual bookworms, which will eat you whole.

This is deep and dark and full of foreboding. People die. Many die in gruesome, startling ways. Our heroine, Mia, is befriended by shadows, and you will soon wish you had your own Mister Kindly. Her story is heartbreaking, but she rises above it in ways that will astonish you. You may not agree with everything she does, but you will want her to succeed at doing it. Let’s just say it earns the hashtag for this title, which is #stabstabstab.

I cannot say enough good things about this book, except holy hell, why was it not on every best list, and why is it not being sung from the mountaintops? And just that you should go get it. Read the synopsis on your chosen book site, and then know that is not nearly enough. It is so much more. For some reason I haven’t published my review yet. And my library doesn’t have a copy. I had to get mine from another system (thank the goddess for Interlibrary loans!). But it is worth hiking over hills and mountains to get this in your hands.

This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

It was hard to choose, if I had to, between this and Nevernight. The clincher, I think, was the overall feel of the book. This is a fantastic story, told by two teens, who are very different from each other. I don’t know if you will like Katie, but that’s okay. You may be repulsed by August, or utterly charmed by him. You will certainly feel for them as they are drawn into this world they inhabit, which they are trying very hard to resist. I loved the story here, I loved the characters, and I loved the utterly forlorn nature of the situation. This is not sugar-coated. It is dark and it is nasty. But there is music, though it does not bring beauty, and at the end, there is hope. This was the second book I had read by Schwab, and I found it even more wonderful than her Darker Shade of Magic series. No romance here, thank you very much. And I can’t wait for the second in this duology, Dark Duet. You can see my full review here.

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

I’ve been championing this book ever since I first read it. I loved it. It is a fast-paced, rousing rebel-with-a-cause adventure, and I want to get back to the desert and see what could possibly happen next. I loved Amani and I loved the setting. I could taste both the dust in my mouth and her own desperation to get out of her sleepy little one-horse town. But along with the adventure, this was also a book about stories. There are legends, and myths, and everyone has their own secrets, and the stories might be true, or might not. There is magic, there is a lovely spot-on bit of blushing romance, and I can’t wait for the next book. I don’t own a copy of this one, but I am torn now, because they changed the beautiful cover for the next book. Why oh why did they do that? They just don’t understand – series must match! And that gorgeous cover is something I would have loved to see carried through. Ah well. I know well enough by now that publishers have reasons why they do things.

Nonfiction

Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy

I read this bit by bit, trying to savor it but still rushing to the next chapter. I loved the way it was laid out. Each chapter focused on a different element of writing. You might want to skip ahead to whatever is eating you at the moment, but I urge you to read it all the way through. It’s like a little masterclass between covers. See how many flags are in my copy? I am excited to put all this great advice to use. A Minnesota author by a Minnesota publisher! I got this copy at the Minnesota reception at Heartland Fall Forum, where I finally got to meet Ben in person.

The Song Poet by Kao Kalia Yang

If you have not read The Late Homecomer, you may not be familiar with Yang. She is a Minnesotan, but her writing will take you far away from here. In her latest book, she tells the story of her father. It’s interesting to hear a daughter focus on her father, but clearly they have a special relationship, and his gift made an impression on her. This is a riveting account of his life, from the mountaintop jungles to the refugee camp to life in America. It is clear that should Yang choose to, she would be an astounding poet. If you ever – I mean EVER – get a chance to hear her speak, run, don’t walk. She can make an entire room cry just answering a question. Her thoughtful, clear-headed story will leave its mark on you. Bonus: if you are not familiar with the Hmong people, you are in for a helluva story. I am so glad that she wrote this book. This one should be filed under “miraculous.” (I received a copy of this book from the publisher at the spring bookseller meeting of MiBA.

Grief Is the Things with Feathers by Max Porter

Never mind that Porter stole the title of the poem that was my mantra while my best friend was fighting cancer. I was irked by that at first, wishing I’d thought to title my poetry collection with this, but that would be too close to the source, wouldn’t it? At any rate, I did not have huge high hopes for this novel. I thought it was at best an affectation, at worst an over-hyped golden boy. But, ahem, I stand corrected, even if only to myself. This spare, lyrical novel will give you pause. It may seem crazy, but just read every word and take the journey. The journey is always different but the ending is magnificent. Keep going.

Fiction

The Dark Lady’s Mask by Mary Sharratt

Carry yourself away, 400 years in the past and across the ocean, to Italy, to England. Mary Sharratt brings it all to life. In what is fast becoming her trademark of authenticity, she has recreated the world in which, perhaps, William Shakespeare made the acquaintance of England’s first published lady poet, Aemelia Bassano. He may or may not have traveled to Italy with her, and then, returning to England, he wrote those sonnets – to her? It is all conjecture at this point, but oh, highly suspect! And somehow, it just feels right. We get glimpses of the court life, glimpses of the precarious nature of society then, the predicament of women, and the words, all the words. This is a lush, fully-imagined story, great for anyone who enjoys diving into historical fiction. Disclaimer: I worked with Mary on a social media campaign for the release of this book. Look for #OpheliaReads on Twitter and Facebook for some fun pics!

Wintering by Peter Geye

And now for something completely different. Peter Geye fully brings to life the landscape of northern Minnesota like no one else. In fact, you could say that the landscape is another character in his books. If you have not read his earlier work, The Lighthouse Road, you could pick that up first, and then binge both of these. They are each told covering two time periods, and contain multiple perspectives, sharing some characters. It is complex writing, and beautiful. Geye returns to his North Shore town of Gunflint, and tells the story of a trip a father and son took into the wild years before. It is an adventure story, tense yet full of the peace of nature. You do not need to have read Lighthouse Road in order to enjoy Wintering, however. Just find yourself some Peter Geye, and settle in for a great winter read.

 

And with that, I got carried away. Check back tomorrow for the second half of my Best of 2016 reads, with more YA, mystery, middle grade and children’s picture books!

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