End of Year Book Reviews

I am, of course, still reading but wrapping up reading for the year as I head into a busy holiday season with my family. It will be my first holiday celebrated entirely in Florida (or without snow!) so I’m both excited to be avoiding the airport and bummed to be missing what is a guaranteed white Christmas up north.

I finished my GoodReads Reading Challenge for the year a few weeks back actually. I am now five books over on the year for an even 80. I will probably add another 2 to that before we hit January 1. I kind of did abysmally on my reading goals for the year so I’m re-thinking how I want to structure next year! I know the first goal out of the gate is to read all the books in both my to-read drawer AND on my Kindle. I am not allowed to get a book from the library until those are read. That will probably take me a few months, to be honest, so maybe by March, I can trust myself in the public library again!

I’m also woefully behind in sharing out reviews of the books I have read so I’m just going to hit the highlights of my fall reading:

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: I had forgotten how much I love E. Lockhart and her ability to make me care so much about such flawed, and sometimes really unlikable, characters. This book plays with a great unreliable narrator. Definitely a lot sadder than Frankie’s story, I still enjoyed the gray space this story occupied in who was right and wrong in what happens.

The Girl in the Clockwork Collar by Kady Cross: I started out my year with the first book in the series and really enjoyed it. This one was less memorable to me. I did enjoy reading it but I don’t really feel compelled to read the next book in the series and since I have enough other things to read, it’s not getting added to the reading list anytime soon.

Dark Witch by Nora Roberts: This was recommended as a great fall read to me and it did not disappoint. The atmosphere of this book was key to me pretending it was fall in sweltering Tallahassee. The main character was a tad annoying at times but I liked her enough to enjoy the story and also to want to know what happens to the other characters introduced in the book so this series got added to the reading list.

starsaboveStars Above by Marissa Meyer: I really miss this series. I mean, I am glad she brought it to a satisfying conclusion but I really love these characters. This book is a series of short stories discussing the characters either before or after the action in the main three books. It was fun to get some of the backstories of my favorites and I adored the final story where we get a “where are they now?” type story with everyone. I am a sucker for that type of story with characters I love.

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe: I picked up a signed copy of this at his book reading here in Tallahassee a long time back so I was happy to finally take the time to read the book. Books about books are the best. Particularly this type where it’s just like a long conversation with a good friend over tea about books. This was also surprising tear-jerking in parts. The chapter where Schwalbe discusses his experience as a gay man in NYC during the height of the AIDS epidemic required multiple tissues.

Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe by Melissa de la Cruz: This was sadly disappointing at the end of the day. I got annoyed with Darcy. She swung from one extreme to the next too quickly. I also found it hard to believe the character we’re presented with is as successful as she is supposed to when she goes to pieces immediately the second something makes her uncomfortable. The swings were just too much to buy, to the point where she was just really unlikable and annoying. Bingley, however, is delightful as Darcy’s best friend and I liked his romance with Jim Bennet.

The Bookshop on the Corner and The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan: A friend who knows me very well gave me these books for our early Christmas gift exchange. Colgan’s heroines take me awhile to warm up too but they always develop so wonderfully into women I want to be best friends with, I know I need to just stick through the tough bits. Bookshop was such a cozy read! Delightful characters too and gave me the urge to sell everything and buy a book truck (oh, and move to Scotland). In Chocolate,  Anna Trent very much fits into that category of Colgan heroine but is also so determined, you’re rooting for her to succeed before you know it. This book also makes me want to suddenly become brilliant at making chocolate. And move to France to live in a garret to do so. Clearly, Colgan mostly just makes me want to quit my job, move to Europe and do some job I’m not really qualified to do…

52 Cups of Coffee by Megan Gebhart: I enjoyed this read. The audience is supposed to be recent or so-to-be-recent college graduates but I think there is something for everyone whether you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up yet or if you’ve always known and are hitting some bumps on the road.

newsworldNews of the World by Paulette Jiles: A very subtle read. It’s a classic western in many ways but the language really elevates this book. The writing is beautiful in its simplicity and evokes a world that is long gone and we only think we know from the movies. Captain Kidd and Johanna are incredible characters to watch grow to trust each other over their treacherous drive from North Texas to San Antonio.

Belle’s Library by Belle (aka the Walt Disney Company): This was a divine little read that was basically like have a long conversation with Belle about books. So, pretty much perfect!

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Jackaby

It is always sad to say goodbye to a good book series. Not that it’s ever really goodbye. The books are always waiting there for you on the shelf or on the Kindle for you to re-visit. Books are comforting that way; they are always just patiently waiting for the next reading.

Things got a little crazy for me to write about this series when I finished the last book (the same day I started reading it; it’s one of those up until 2am because you have to know how it finishes kind of books). This is also the first series since Harry Potter that I pre-ordered the book. Of course, a little differently these days. I ordered the Kindle version so I wake up on release day and there it was, just waiting for me! A bit easier on your day that the agonizing wait for the mailman to show up. So, that should give you some idea of how excited, and devastated, I was for this last book. Last books are nerve-wracking. Will the author answer all the questions? Will they kill off a beloved character? Will they kill off more than one? What new characters will they throw into the mix at the eleventh hour? And as those questions race through your mind, there is one ever-present chant: please don’t screw it up. As a reader, it’s stressful. I can’t imagine being a writer and having to deal with it.

So, to the series at hand. Jackaby. From the start, I adored the idea of this book long before I read it. R.F. Jackaby, a supernatural detective in an alternative Boston-like town takes on an intrepid young woman who’s escaped conformity in Britain for the New World as his assistant.  Jackaby was, as I believe I described in him a previous blog post, a cross between the brothers from Supernatural and the Doctor with a dash of Sherlock. He was delightful. But, and I think this is the coolest part of this series, he was misleading. In fact, the series being called Jackaby is misleading because this is very much a series of books more about his assistant, Abigail Rook, the aforementioned intrepid young woman. Rook is who writes down the stories so they are told from her perspective, Jackaby’s Watson if you like. Unlike Watson though, Rook is very much a leading lady of her own story. She’s the one who likes the detecting work; Jackaby just happens to be the Seer, the person who can see and knows about the supernatural world. Over four books, their partnership is lovely to watch grow but from the start, it is an equal partnership and that is rare even in fiction.

To the last installment of the series, The Dire King. For three books we’ve been leading up to the idea that a single intelligence has been causing all the mayhem in the first three books and now the final goal and villain are revealed. The author did not disappoint. He answered pretty much everything, including some last minute questions he threw in there. He certainly killed off a lot of characters; there were tears. However, as there is a supernatural bent to the story, a few came back, in the end, to make sure there was at least a happier ending that might be expected. As I noted in my review right after finishing reading: In many ways, I could often see the twists coming in this book – subtlety isn’t the point of the plot. These books have always shone because of their characters. These are people I want to be friends with, fight alongside with, have daring, unbelievable adventures with. I am only too sorry to find, as usual, some of the best people I know are fictional. I shall miss Jackaby, Abigail, Jenny, and Charlie.

So, I bid adieu (for now) to this series as I move on to others on my list but I recommend you make the acquaintance of Jackaby and Co. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Collecting at WDW

I am behind, so behind, on listening to the three podcasts I haven’t abandoned because…time. So, this is a response to a month old WDWRadio podcast about things to collect at Walt Disney World. I am a collector, less so now than when I was a kid. As a kid, I may have been more a borderline hoarder. I am more selective these days but the collections I still have almost all have a Disney tie. Exhibits A-D:

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A recent snapshot of my WDW pin collection; still have room to grow!

1) Pins. Let’s start with the obvious one when it comes to me. Mom and Dad had no idea what they were starting when they brought me that first lanyard with four tiny little pins from each park back in 2000. I outgrew the lanyards a long time ago and display my collection on a pegboard now. I know, I know. You’re supposed to wear and trade them but I put a lot of thought into my pins. I pick characters or movies to hunt out each trip or buy pins to commemorate certain events I attend in the parks or even certain trips. These are touchstones for me, not something to trade away. I bought a Cinderella pin the year I did WDW with my best friend from high school and that’s her favorite character. I hunted an entire trip to find a Hunchback of Notre Dame pin one year (I finally hunted it up in the Animation store at DHS – I really miss that store). I have pins from all the festivals I’ve gotten to (Flower & Garden, Food & Wine). Each party I’ve gotten to attend has a pin; I have pins for things that don’t exist anymore (Osborne Spectacular of Lights is one of my favorite pins). I expanded my collection to include Disneyland pins for my first trip back to the original parks in 2012 and then for my trip last year in 2016. I love looking on my board and remembering where all the pins came from and which trip they belong to.

2) Maps. In re-organizing my giant memory chest a year or so ago, I found I’d stopped collecting these (I hadn’t really realized I was collecting them). I meant to start back up this year but I rely so much on the app now, I never think to grab a map as a souvenir. I’ll go again at least once this year so I need to get maps! As a kid though, I was religious in keeping a map from each park for each trip and they are a blast to look through now. To watch the parks grow and change over time is a true Disney Nerd moment.

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I am especially proud of that bottom middle one! RIP Discovery Island

3) Postcards. These are something else I often buy but don’t think that I’m collecting them per say. However, I have postcards everywhere – whether it’s a postcard of the parks or a postcard version of a piece of art I couldn’t afford – I have tons of these, some out for display but most stored away. I always had in the back of my mind I would frame and display all these eventually. Maybe someday I will. I really should just go for a “Disney Wall” some place in my apartment and see what I end up with.

 

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Apparently, I really liked that one that I bought it twice LOL

 

4) Books. Disney, hear me out. Give me a bookstore in Disney Springs already. Just take my money! I will give it to you. I have to hunt for books in the parks these days. There used to be some guarantee go-to spots to find them but even most of those are gone now (The Writer’s Stop, The Animation Shop (we lost so much when this went away clearly), the book wall in World of Disney). As a bookworm, I love to pick up books when I travel. As a kid, I collected the Disney history books in the parks including the coveted Since the World Began by Jeff Kurtti which I lugged all over the Magic Kingdom one trip (I just had to buy it early in the day). These days I pick up books wherever I can find them on property. The gift shop tucked back in Fantasyland often has some of the Beauty and the Beast books being published (though not all of them, Belle is disappointed in you Disney). You can also usually hunt out the Figment comics in the gift shop after the ride and, oddly enough, I have good luck finding them at the Contemporary Resort. I may have swooned on my last Disneyland trip when I found an ENTIRE WALL of books in the shop attached to their Animation area. Seriously Disney, take all the books (your publishing arm pushes out enough of them) and put them in a small shop in Disney Springs. I could probably single-handedly keep it open for you.

A Tale as Old as Time

The first movie I can really remember seeing in the movie theater was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Belle was my hero. I wanted to be just like her. Adventurous, loyal, smart, kind, able to walk and read at the same time. Bonus? She got that library in the end too! This was before princess culture took over the toy aisles and before Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique was a thing. This was just a heroine who saved the day. I am who I am because I had Belle as a role model and never once has that been a bad thing. I didn’t even realize it could be until college.

I was a women’s studies minor in college and I adored it. However, it was the first time I really needed to defend my love of Disney and the movies. Look, they are problematic at times, don’t get me wrong but I know it’s also something we have a lot of control over in how it effects us thanks to how our world shares it with us. [See my rant a while back on Cinderella and princess culture] My parents never told me “look at the pretty princess who gets her prince, you should be just like that!” No, my dad only ever said, “look, Belle likes to read just like you!” I always felt I could go off and have adventures because Belle did. And honestly, while I enjoy the Beast, I never felt he was really all that necessary to Belle’s adventures. A catalyst? sure! But necessary…eh. I am the girl who went onto write one of her best papers on how men are superfluous in 19th century novels so clearly I had an idea from a young age that princes and their elk were around for plot purposes, not because the heroine actually needed them. And hey, look at Disney movies with that lens and suddenly, it’s a whole different ball game.

But, I digress. I’m here to talk about Beauty & The Beast of which I lately read and/or watched a couple of fabulous re-tellings that I wanted to share. I read a lot of Cinderella re-tellings but not so much B&TB so yay for different fairy tale re-visits!

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Seriously, so gorgeous. La belle et la bête (2014)

La Belle et La Bête is an absolute gorgeous film out of France in 2014. It has been on my list for awhile so I requested it through the library recently and then they decided to purchase it. I do have great taste after all. And then, right after I got it from the library, Netflix started streaming it so you should all check it out! This version stays a bit more on the traditional tale side of things. Belle and her family (widowed father, two brothers and two sisters) move to the countryside after her father’s merchant business is ruined by bad storms and the family’s finances are immediately tanked. Belle loves her new life in the countryside though the family is less than pleased. However, miracle! One ship manages to get back to port so Belle’s father and oldest brother head back to the city to reclaim their good fortune but that doesn’t work out so well. The eldest brother is in hock to a very bad guy (why isn’t all that clear) and her father ends up hunted by wolves until he finds his way to an enchanted castle. It goes on from there. Things I really liked about this version were: the visuals – the movie is yummy to look at and the costume design is out of this world. Seriously, Belle’s dresses at the castle are works of art and I am so impressed she could move in them; The backstory to why the Beast is cursed; The little enchanted dogs; Giant walking statues at the climax of the film; the ending. Also, the relationships in this movie are SO stereo-typically French which doesn’t always come across well to an American audience (I hate you! I love you! Save me! Get away from me! all in the span of five minutes) but I enjoyed them. My main issue with this version is the plot has a few holes in it and lot of plot points aren’t explained very well.

2974811Belle: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast (Once Upon a Time #14) is actually part of me getting back to finishing up series on my reading list. This installment is by Cameron Dokey, one of my all time favorite fairy tale re-tellers (if that’s a thing you can have a favorite in).  This was quite a decent retelling of Beauty & The Beast. I liked the woodcarving Belle in this adventure and the idea that the name is more of a curse than a blessing when her face does not live up to the promise of the name. I liked the evolution of the family here as well; much closer to the original story where Bell has two sisters but this version redeems her sisters in ways the original tale did not.

I had read Robin McKinley’s Beauty a long while back but she wrote another B&TB re-telling and I only just now got around to it. Rose Daughter is a lovely rendition of the original story. I liked the emphasis on description over dialogue; much more in keeping with the original fairy tale tradition. The sisters especially were wonderfully rendered and their relationship very much the core of the story over Beauty’s relationship with her father and even to some extent, the Beast. The only thing missing from this version was a good library but I liked the idea of Beauty as a gardener as something new that made perfect sense. Indeed, this book would have fit perfectly into a widening of my thesis in college – the idea that a fairy tale heroine is much stronger when surrounded by a network of supportive and strong females.

Indeed, you get a glimpse into how we re-imagine our heroines in all these versions. Belle as a bookworm, as a woodcarver, as a gardener. As someone who is brave and strong for her family even when she is placed in impossible situations and asked to do impossible things. I think that is something I appreciate more and more about fairy tales each year; they are infinitely malleable to times and places and never seem to cease having tales to tell us in new versions. And surely, Beauty and the Beast will remain a favorite.

 

The Girl with Silver Eyes

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From Goodreads, modern cover

Recently, I treated myself to a bit of a belated book spree on Amazon. I’d been hoarding a gift card balance from Christmas and my birthday. I like to keep a balance for ebook purchases but I’d also been waiting for a move to be done before picking some books off the long to-buy list (not as long as the to-read list so that’s a good thing for my wallet).

A while back, I’d added a book from childhood to the list. I have a small collection of my childhood books. The ones I’ll re-read periodically or the ones I’m going to force down my nieces’ and nephews’ throats when they come to visit someday. However, there were a few glaring omissions. One of my latest acquisitions was a big one and I know why I didn’t own it. It’s actually one I found through school.

Most of the reading I did early on for school wasn’t my cup of tea. I was often bored because the books were too easy or I didn’t care for the characters. This all started to change in 5th grade. Mr. Clark wasn’t the sort of teacher I’d encountered before and I adored his class. We dissected owl pellets, cows’ eyes and a sheep’s brain that year. Went to the swamp for our class trip. Fostered baby snapping turtles and very happily called Mr. Clark’s Florida King Snake Blackie as we wore him around our necks. Science was big in his classroom and it was the first time it was a real focus of my schooling that I remember. With Mr. Clark also came some very cool science fiction books. When I recently posted about picking up a copy of The Girl with Silver Eyes, a classmate from that year said that was the teacher that led to her love of science fiction and fantasy and I would have to agree. This book and the White Mountain trilogy were like gateway drugs and I happily fed the newfound addiction with Bruce Coville’s Magic Shop books and Dinotopia that year too. Overall, 5th grade was a great reading year. Except for Where The Red Fern Grows but I have blocked that one out completely…not. I am still traumatized. Animals in peril. Enough said.

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From Goodreads, cover I remember from 5th grade (love the attitude Katie has going here!)

So, what is The Girl with Silver Eyes? For starters, it’s not a trilogy. Ten bucks says if it was written today, it would be. It’s also not preoccupied with world building; it’s completely character driven in a normal suburban setting. It’s the story of Katie, a very quiet, very shy not quite 10 year old who has silver eyes. And can move things with her mind. And talk to animals. In short, Katie is awesome and a bit of a spirit animal to my 5th grade self. As the book begins, Katie has just moved into an apartment with her mother after her grandmother passed away. Katie’s powers start to cause problems and brings the interest of a new neighbor on her head, a new neighbor who is not what he seems be at first glance. Also, Katie’s figured out why she has silver eyes and that maybe, just maybe, there might be other kids like her out there. But how to find them?

So, to start with, this book holds up really well even though to some extent, this book could not exist today. A lot of the tension and pages of this book owe itself to the fact Katie couldn’t simply Google the other kids’ names once she finds them. Also, a lot of it runs on the idea of the telephone in a way we just don’t worry about anymore. Katie has to stay in her apartment to wait for phone calls. Think about that. Still, the idea behind the story is still solid and I sort of love that the book has a bit of an ambiguous ending. Like I said above, today the book would probably be a trilogy and have some odd love triangle develop along with lots more details about the shadowy Psychic Institute introduced in the end but here, we’re left with this idea that Katie is going to be OK…we think. A kid can make up their own ending and I think we don’t do enough of that in kids’ science fiction and fantasy today (and I cannot believe I am writing that as I am one of those people that loves every little plot line wrapped up in the end usually).

So, in short, I still love this book and hope it’s still being shared in some way with kids today. If nothing else, I kept trying to think through how the story might change in a 2017 setting and realizing I’d still really like to be Katie, silver eyes and all.

Reading Catch-Up

Time for some drive-by book reviews to get you all caught up on my reading since the last one.

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas: It has been awhile since I read this one but I remember liking it. I especially enjoyed the setting; the touch of magic surrounding all the characters and the setting of the romantic Istanbul does a lot to save a sort of convoluted plot.

Maud’s Line by Margaret Verble: [This is excerpted from my Goodreads review and I still agree with it all] Ugh. So, this book and me did not get on. First of all, I know I am coming from a place of white privilege and do not have the same fear of authorities that minorities, particularly Native Americans in 1920s Oklahoma, rightfully have but ugh, Maud needed to trust someone, ANYONE. I found it extremely annoying. If she would have just been honest with a lot of people, she would have been better off. The story is not boring and moves along at a good clip. In fact, it is packed full of action. The author’s similes are a bit much at times; so much so they could bring me out of the story as they were quite jarring but I think that must be the cadence of the language of the area she’s bringing in. Not having visited Oklahoma, it was an area and a culture I was very unfamiliar with. So, I think that was also a sense of my discomfort with the story and its characters. It was very foreign to me, the distrust of authority, the scheming on Maud’s part and then her ability to know what she should do and not doing it anyway, the rather dreary setting and the way the very landscape seems to be driving people crazy. Maud and I agreed on one thing; she needed a change of scene. She was not a comfortable character but rather infuriating. And when it’s her story, it’s hard to get past that.

Ink and Bone (The Great Library #1) and and Paper and Fire (The Great Library #2) by Rachel Caine: This series gets better with each book. I enjoy every character and it’s been awhile since I could say that about a book (or books). The idea for the series is also delightful and the world building is spot on. I do have difficulty when the big bad represents something I generally adore (libraries, books, knowledge) but I like that the whole idea of the series is exploring what happens when the desire to protect such things comes at too high a cost, with too much control over the very thing you’re trying to protect that you subvert its ideals.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger: A good mystery made more compelling by the coming of age story at the center of it. The brothers Frank and Jake make for excellent guides through a turbulent summer in small town Minnesota.

We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson: Really enjoyed this read; made difficult physics questions easy and fun to understand. Not that I still always understood but I definitely followed better than I did in my high school physics class all those years ago. I enjoyed the partnership between the text and the drawings as well as the type of humor. I’d recommend for someone like me who is curious but not always very good at following high concept science but also for someone a lot younger who hasn’t encountered a physics class yet. I think this would make a great companion for someone taking a class right now too.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: Second time the charm! Happy I got this back from the library fairly soon after I had to return it and go back on the waiting list (the first time I got it out, I didn’t have time to finish it!). I really enjoyed this memoir. The science interspersed with Jahren’s stories makes for a very interesting and compelling read. While it doesn’t sound glamorous in any way, it does make you want to be a scientist. Or at the very least go plant something after you’re finished reading it.

Letters to Zell by Camille Griep: As always, I enjoy a good fairy tale retelling. This one was a lot of fun to read. The premise was great to begin with and I love a good book of letters but I think this book surprised me a bit too. I think a lot about what happened after the “happy ever after” (it’s a hobby) and this is one of the more compelling and interesting takes on it. It’s a bit of Shrek meets chick lit in many ways which works better than you’d think.

Reading since January

I have been reading. I promise. Lately I’ve been feeling the need for historical romances as chasers for some heavier fiction. Being part of a book club has changed my reading habits more than I expected so I’m still adjusting to the fact I have this one book each month that is not of my choosing. I’m enjoying them; they just aren’t often quick reads. They need to be read slowly and thought over, mulled if you will, so I have something to say about them when I sit down to informally lead a discussion on it. So, let’s take a look at what I’ve been reading since I started the year with Austen. [You will note none of these go towards my reading goals really…I need to re-group on that set of goals one of these days…]

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Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher #1): I discovered Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix late last year and it was the best find ever. I was happy to discover they were books first and my delightful friend got me the first one for Christmas. While the book was lovely, I am going to say something that pains me a bit…I like the TV series version better. I know! For shame! But the series does a few things with what is a solid story base and the makings of a fabulous characters that make it that much better. 1) It cast perfectly – seriously, the TV series was almost too perfect in picking actors to enhance the makings of the characters in the book. And it edited them well too – taking some roles out and attributing them to other more prominent characters. It could also be over the course of the book series this happens as well but the TV series hits you with them 10 minutes in. 2) It takes everything on page and fleshes it out more. Which is odd because you usually have the opposite problem with film adaptations but this is a relatively short book with some odd choices in it. The series edited it perfectly; adding where needed, removing some of the odder choices. It’s one downfall might be it made all the “hero” characters a lot more likable than they come across in the book sometimes. I will be interested to keep reading to see how they continue to compare but for the moment, the TV version is winning this series.

As Old as Time (Twisted Tales #3): ** spoiler alert ** I am enjoying the Twisted Tales series from Disney. I missed the second one somehow but they are really stand alone stories, just in the same vein of storytelling. Besides, Beauty and the Beast is a personal favorite so clearly this was a must read for me. This particular retelling played well with the original story, having that pivotal moment again where the book begins to deviate from the movie we all know so well. In this tale, it is the moment of Belle and the rose in the West Wing. In the movie, she is stopped before she can touch it; here, not so much and so sets off the adventure. I liked this version of Belle; she is the one you recognize but also a bit like you would probably be in her shoes. The talking furniture freaks her out, she calls herself out when acting too much like a gothic heroine and is, quite rightly, not perfect. She sticks her foot in her mouth with the Beast as often as he loses his temper. I also liked that this story focuses as much on Belle and the Beast as it does on Belle’s mother and father. For the first part, the two stories are actually told in parallel and well the changes are sometimes clumsily wrought (the forgetting spell is convenient but doesn’t play out 100% well and Gaston is…well…not the villain here so I can forgive the changes there but they are kind of just weird in the end.) Overall, I liked this re-telling of B&B and I liked that it left the door open for more adventures of Belle and the Beast as they head off to find more of the displaced magical creatures.

The Complete Stories: I picked this up when I was in Savannah last fall at one of the most swoon-worthy bookstores I’ve found in a while in my travels. Flannery O’Connor is one of those 20th century authors I actually rather enjoy. I remember thanking heaven for Wise Blood in my contemporary American lit class as it was one book I enjoyed out of many I loathed. However, it took me awhile to get through this collection. Her stories are lovely but can be a lot in one sitting. I needed to pace myself to enjoy her language and quirky plot twists. These are never fun to read; it is language you read O’Connor for and that particular brand of Southern Gothic no one does better.

Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World: [I read an uncorrected proof via Edelweiss so some issues I had with this one are probably fixed in the published copy.] I both liked this and found it extremely annoying at the same time. I think a lot of it had to do with the formatting and I hope once this is actually published there will be better indicators to the readers when Stevens is switching between her narrative, one of her short stories, and the unfinished novel she’s working on because I spent a lot of pages figuring out which one was which a lot when reading. That said, I liked the disjointedness of the narrative (which surprised me), I just want a better marker for when the narrative is switching up. The author herself can grate a bit. She’s very much what you think of when you think “twenty-something rather insecure MFA graduate working on first novel.” But she is incredibly honest (or seems to be) and I cannot but applaud that sort of raw honesty about one’s self. She can be annoying, whiny, and unlikable and she doesn’t sugarcoat that. She also isn’t hiding her failure here and I liked that best of all. She is very clearly writing an entire book about this really weird and rather foolish idea she actually acted on and then failed at pretty spectacularly. I think she is strongest when it’s her narrative; I found the fiction she includes of that sort of pretentious overly sexual blather that MFA programs are churning out by the literary review full and I find utterly ridiculous and boring most of the time (because do you know the people in those stories? I don’t and I don’t want to either). I read this for the premise; the idea of a writer going off to live in the middle of nowhere and Nell Stevens delivered beautifully for that part of the story.

The Never-Open Desert Diner: I liked this novel but I’m not entirely sure I could tell you why. I liked the characters; as weird and rather unlikable as they could be. I liked their quirkiness. I loved the setting of the book. The desert is as much a character as its human counterparts and it made me want to go explore middle of nowhere Utah someday. The plot…is odd. About halfway through the book, the plot becomes even weirder than the characters involved and I’m not sure I really buy it in the end but I also don’t think the reader gets the full story so there are still a lot of blanks when you read the last page. It fits the story though so didn’t bother me as much as it normally would.

The Underground Railroad: This is as good as everyone is saying. You need to read it. Heartbreaking and yet inspiring to read. Cora is a character with a story who stays with you long after you finish the last page. I have nothing more to add, just go read it ASAP.

Orphan Train: I really enjoyed this read; I particularly liked the structure which is odd because often in a split narrative like this I prefer one storyline over the other but I liked both stories equally here and thought they complimented each other incredibly well. Both Vivian and Molly are strong, relatable heroines that you root for throughout the book. I also liked learning more about this odd little episode in American history and its after-effects on the generations that followed the orphan trains in the American midwest.

I have a stack on the bedside table at the moment (of course). I am about halfway through The Oracle of Stamboul and have Maud’s Line and Lab Girl on deck then it’s back to working on the books in the to-read pile before then getting back to my reading goals for the year…oy. I need more time to just read!