Happy New Year!

Friday, December 31, 2010

(Meatballs I made for tomato soup)

At the end of 2009 I made a few new year’s resolutions for 2010. My resolutions tend to be goals, rather than changes in my life. Here’s how I did…

1) Watch at least 10 Best Picture Oscar winning films – Done – Patton, Hurt Locker, Mutiny of the Bounty, Mrs. Miniver (really good!), Tom Jones, A Man For All Seasons, Going My Way, The Lost Weekend, Marty and All Quiet on the Western Front

2) Complete all of my reading challenges – Done – 2010 100 Challenge, Color Challenge, Audiobook Challenge, 101010 Challenge, Random Book Challenge

3) Travel to a new state – Done, I went to Wisconsin, Maryland and Oregon all for the first time this year.

(Me at Poe's grave in Baltimore, MD)

4) Start my first garden – Done, but it was a very small garden and only the tomatoes were really a success.

5) Learn how to knit – Done, I’m still learning, but I can do it now.

6) Learn how to cook at least one good recipe to go with each meat – Done, I learned how to cook a ton of recipes this year! I should add that before this year I could make scrambled eggs and… well that’s about it. Some favorites include…
Chicken - Chicken with Pan Sauce and Havarti Stuffed Chicken
Beef – Tomato and Meatball Soup (I made the beef meatballs from scratch!)
Lamb – Lamb with lemon mint marinade
Seafood – I made recipes with tilapia, salmon, halibut, scallops, shrimp, crab legs and mahi mahi.
Pork – Pork tenderloin wrapped in prosciutto

7) Give blood for the first time (learn my blood type) – Done, B+

(Cilantro marker in my garden)

I am pretty proud of the things I accomplished, so here’s next year’s list.

2011 New Year’s Resolutions (goals)

1) Learn how to use my sewing machine. I will be happy if I can complete simple things, like hemming pants and curtains.

2) Complete all of my reading challenges. This includes ignoring the number of books I read in 2011 and focusing on completing some massive ones instead.

3) Again… travel to a new state, learn how to cook new things and watch Oscar Best Picture Winners.

4) Put at least $100 into savings each month.

5) Work out once a week. Yes, I know this seems like nothing, but I hate working out and will be proud of myself if I do it at least once a week.

There are a million other things I want to do in 2011, be a more patient person, work on putting others first, be a better wife, friend, daughter, sister, blogger, etc. The above list is just a few tangible goals that I can try to work towards.

Happy New Year! Bring it on 2011.

Photos by moi and a friend.

Book Reviews: City of Thieves

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The City of Thieves
By David Benioff

I tend to love books that deal with WWII. There are so many different amazing stories to tell about people at their best and worst that take place during that awful war. Despite that, I’ve read very little about WWII in Russia, so I was excited to read this book.

Lev, the narrator, is a young naive man, is paired up with the worldly-wise Kolya when both men face disciplinary action in the army. They are assigned the odd task of finding a dozen eggs for a superior officer's daughter's wedding cake. Their adventure forces them to cross paths with some vicious people. Lev is forced to grow up quickly as he copes with all that he sees.

The plot and style of writing reminded me of the film Inglorious Bastards. There’s a good story there but you have to wade through some violence and crass language to get to it. It’s definitely targeted at a male audience with frequent references to sex, defecating, etc., and though I could have done with less of that, it’s still a great story.

This is definitely not a book for the faint of heart. Leningrad was no picnic during the Siege and Lev must face some heinous situations. Yet Benioff doesn’t dwell on the violence, he uses it to show the atrocities that human beings can do to one another under the blanket of war. It’s a powerful book that’s at once funny and heartbreaking.

“The truth might be stranger than fiction, but it needs a better editing.”

“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept.”

Side Note: Benioff has written the screenplay quite a few films, including The Kite Runner and X-Men: Wolverine, which explains why the book felt like it was paced like a movie (not in a bad way). He’s also married to actress Amanda Peet, who knew?

Wordless Wednesday: Wisteria

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wisteria in Zurich, Switzerland

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Book Reviews: Packing for Mars

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
by Mary Roach

I always enjoy Roach’s books. She manages to blend scientific research with humor in a delightful way that makes each topic interesting. I’ve read Stiff, Bonk and now this one. Roach has a biting wit and makes keen observations about science in a way that I’ve grown to love.

In Packing, Roach asks great questions about NASA’s procedures and preparations for trips. She shares details that make the astronauts human and accessible, like frequent attempts to smuggling alcohol on board or their tendency to get fed up with each other and the food selection. She dwells on sex (or lack there of) and bathroom procedures in space for a really long time. Those sections became a bit tiring after awhile.

In the end, it’s Roach herself that make her books so enjoyable. Her sense of humor, irreverent approach to any topic and tireless fascination with the world around her make her books worth reading. I always feel like I learn something and I get a lot of laughs while reading one of her books. If you’re looking to try one I would recommend Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, as a good place to start.

Book Reviews: ROOM

Monday, December 27, 2010

by Emma Donoghue

Jack, a 5-year-old, lives in Room with his Ma. In Room they have Table, Bed, Wardrobe and a few other things. Jack loves their home and his happy life there. Sometimes Old Nick brings them food or other surprises, but only at night.

In reality, Ma was kidnapped when she was 19 and Room is the 11x11 foot prison that she’s lived in for seven years. Old Nick is her capture and Jack is the product of rape. This sounds horrific, but the story is presented entirely through Jack’s innocent eyes, making it absolutely memorizing. Inspired by a true story, Donoghue let her imagination run wild and created a nightmare situation for her characters. The brilliance truly lies in narrator she chose. Telling the story through a child allows her filter the heavy material. Jack can’t be disturbed by something he doesn’t understand, so he avoids much of the heartache his mother is saddled with.


I really loved the fact that Donoghue showed us what happens after they leave the Room. There’s no happily ever after, instead the story is as much about their transition into the “real” world as it is about their confinement.

Imagine surviving something so horrific for seven years and then being mobbed by media figures while talk show hosts questioned your parenting choices. It’s an unbelievably impossible situation.

At first the breast feeding thing really weirded me out. I know that’s mainly because a) I’m not a mom and have never breastfed and b) Our society has made it a taboo. That being said I thought about living in a tiny room where you can’t control your food source. You have a child to care for and the person you’re dependant upon for sustenance is evil and vindictive. Would you really cut off your one reliable source of food for your child? No, of course you wouldn’t.


Room is one of the most fascinating books I read this year. It was thought-provoking and engrossing. It took a terrifying situation and presented it in an accessible way. I connected with the characters and didn’t want to say goodbye at the end of the book. It was everything you can ask for from a novel.

Merry Christmas

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas (tomorrow) guys!!! I hope you all have an amazing day. Relax with your family and friends, eat too many cookies, drink some egg nog, open some presents (hopefully books!) and watch a Christmas movie. I'll be back on Monday.

Photo by moi.

Book Reviews: All Quiet on the Western Front

Thursday, December 23, 2010

All Quiet on the Western Front

by Erich Maria Remarque


A young man, Bäumer, goes off to fight for his country in WWI and finds the battlefield a much different place than he was expecting. He and his fellow men quickly become disenchanted with war. They also become desensitized to violence and disconnected from civilian life. Returning home to a “normal” existence is nearly impossible for most soldiers, even today, and this book addresses that.

I found the sections where Bäumer goes home on leave to be particularly poignant. He has seen so much death and his family expects him to be the same man he was when he left. Even though he tells the story, I never felt connected to Bäumer. His voice feels cold and distant. While it certainly gets the main theme and message across, I was never emotionally invested.

One thing that really surprised me about this book is that it’s from a German soldier’s point-of-view. For some reason I just assumed it was from the point-of-view of a French or British soldier. Hearing about the hardships of war from a German soldier was incredibly powerful. It humanized the enemy and reminded me that they were just young men following orders.

Wordless Wednesday: Imperial War Museum

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Imperial War Museum in London.

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Book Reviews: The Maze Runner

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Maze Runner
by James Dashner

A young boy, Thomas, wakes up in a strange place surrounded by other boys, remembering nothing but his name. He soon finds out he is in the Glade, a place surrounded by a dangerous maze. Every day a few of the boys brave the maze, despite all of the evil beast within it, to try to find a way out. The “runners” main foes are Grievers, part machine, part animal.

The Glade feels vaguely familiar to Thomas though he doesn’t know why. His relationship with the other boys is complicated when a girl shows up claiming everything is about to change.

The book feels like a combination of The Hunger Games and Lord of the Flies, but it falls short of attaining the same impact as either of those books. There are some good characters, Alby, Chuck, Minho, all of whom I liked, but Thomas felt hollow to me. I didn’t dislike him, but I wasn’t attached to him. The book kept my interest, but many parts were predictable and repetitive. I think it’s a good addition to the YA dystopian genre, but certainly not the best.

Book Reviews: The Fire Next Time

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Fire Next Time
by James Baldwin

Baldwin’s slim book about race problems in America provides a powerful picture of the tumultuous time period he was living in. It begins with a line from an old slave song, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time.” He goes on to talk about how black and white people in America are picking each other apart and destroying themselves in the process.

Baldwin wrote this in 1963, while the nation was embroiled in the Civil Rights movement. His thoughts on the matter are both universal and deeply personal. He manages capture the feelings of many African Americans at that time, frustration and anger at a world filled with injustice, and blend them with his own cry for a peaceful persistence as they fight for equality.

He wrote much of this book to encourage his nephew and convince him that he shouldn’t see himself as unworthy because white people may treat him that way. This is my first taste of Baldwin and while I was impressed by his writing style, I’ve heard his fiction is even better.

“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”

Friday Favorites: I Capture the Castle

Friday, December 17, 2010

I Capture the Castle
by Dodie Smith

The Mortmain family lives in a rundown castle in the English countryside in the 1930s. The book is presented as the 17-year-old Cassandra’s journal and in this way we see the world through her eyes.

There’s her father, a famous author who has become temperamental and withdrawn and no longer writes a thing. Topaz, her stepmother, a free spirit convinced that her purpose in life is to inspire great works in others. Rose, Cassandra’s older sister, is a beauty whose goal in life is to marry a rich man and escape poverty. Thomas, her brother, is a clever boy who never steps into the story’s spotlight. Finally there is Stephen, the son of their deceased maid, who lives with them and helps take care of the grounds. He’s a kind, humble boy and is devoted to Cassandra. He spends his extra time and money trying to make her life better in every way that he can.

Despite their financial ruin, Cassandra and her family are rather content. They make do with what they have, though it’s not a lot. Their lives are turned upside down when two wealthy American brothers, Simon and Neil Cotton, move into the mansion up the road. The two very different families find their fates unavoidable intertwined.

Like many literary second daughters before her (Jo March, Elizabeth Bennet) Cassandra makes a wonderful central character. She’s someone who you just want to be friends with. She’s a bit naïve for her age, but that’s because she’s grown up with almost no social interaction outside of her family. Throughout the book we watch her mature and begin to understand not only the world around her, but also herself.

This is one of those books that I just knew I was going to love. I’ve been saving it to read when I was in just the right mood. People had recommended it to me for years, comparing it to some of my favorites like, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Near the beginning of the book Cassandra and her sister share this exchange…

"How I wish I lived in a Jane Austen novel!"
“I said I'd rather be in a Charlotte Bronte.”
"Which would be nicest - Jane with a touch of Charlotte, or Charlotte with a touch of Jane?"

Please tell me how I could have resisted a book with a passage like that.

In the end it was all that I hoped it would be. The characters are rich, but deeply flawed. The plot is much more complicated than a simple happily ever after. The writing was wonderful and completely engrossing. Throughout the story I felt like I was there, enjoying the Midsummer Night’s Eve or sipping from my first glass of port on a rainy day right beside Cassandra. It did what so few books can do, left me wanting more from the characters who now felt like my friends.

A couple great lines…

“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.”

“They went on interrupting each other in a perfectly friendly manner.”

Book Reviews: Annie John

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Annie John
by Jamaica Kincaid

This coming-of-age story follows a young girl, Annie, as she grows up on the island of Antigua. There are eight episodes, each a picture of Annie's life as she tries to understand the world around her.

Annie wasn't a likeable character, though I suppose few young teenage girls are likeable in real life. So in that way Kincaid's portrayal of the girl felt very real, but at the same time, it's hard to love such a selfish and often cruel character.

Annie has a tendency to become obsessed with her friends. She lets one girl become the focus of her world and then, just as quickly, she loses interest in her and moves on. Kincaid has said in interviews that she never meant for Annie's character to be interpreted as homosexual, but at the same time, the relationships feel more like crushes than friendships.

As a child Annie idolizes her mother, but as she grows older she begins to hate her. She develops a deep resentment of her mother and never overcomes it. The book skirts around many issues and in doing so left me wanting. It touches on depression, giving the reader a glimpse
of that condition in Annie, but just as quickly drops it. Overall it was an interesting read, but didn't really work for me.

If the basic story sounds good I'd recommend, The Meaning of Consuelo and The House on Mango Street. I enjoyed both of those books more than Annie John and they have similar premises.

1001 Books Challenge

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I bought this book a few years ago and have been checking off titles as I read them ever since. I've found some great books on this list so far and have read 123 out of the daunting 1001. Now Caitie at Pub Writes is hosting a challenge to read books on the list. Since I do that anyway, I'm joining. I'm shooting for the PhD level, which is 16+.

The challenge is simple – read some books from the list! If you don’t own the actual book, you can find a simple list online. For the most basic, check out the Listology list. There are spreadsheets outs there that you can look at too that are more complex.

High Schoo Diplomal: 5 books from the list

Bachelor’s Degree: 6-10 books

Master’s Degree: 11-15 books

PhD: 16+

Challenge runs January 1 2011 – Decemeber 31 2011.
You don’t have to make a list beforehand.
You can use any version of the list, not just the current, since they update it every couple years

Book Reviews: Suite Francaise

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Suite Francaise
by Irene Nemirovsky

Split into two section, A Storm in June and Dolce, this book was originally set to be made up of five parts. The author, a Jewish woman, died in Auschwitz during the very war she was chronicling before she could finish her tale. Perhaps because of that, the sprawling novel never quite manages to make all of its ends meet.

Despite that, Nemirovsky created a powerful portrait of France during WWII. A Storm in June follows the mass exodus of Paris as German troops advance on the city. The desperation of the people leads them to do selfish things as they try to survive. I love how the author shows examples of both the wealthy and poor classes struggles during this time.

Dolce focuses on a small provincial town which is occupied by Germans during the war. The French people are forced to allow Germans to live in their homes and each family reacts in a different way to the intrusion.

There are so many characters that it’s hard to remember how they all connect. I have a feeling that their stories would have become clearer and more complete through the final three volumes she was planning on writing, but we’ll never know for sure. It’s heartbreaking to discover one more life cut too short by war.

2010 Reading Survey

Monday, December 13, 2010

Here's a few fun reading questions that I saw at Literary Musings and The Perpetual Page-Turners. How about we all just agree from the start that I’m going to cheat and list two books on some (most) of these. I tried, I just can’t narrow it down. That being said, here we go…

1. Best book of 2010? The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith – A British butler who has lived a detached life and is coming to terms with his regrets; a British teen who is completely in love with life. Two absolute gems that I will definitely be rereading in future years. 

2. Worst book of 2010? For One More Day by Mitch Albom – Seriously, why do I keep reading his fiction? It’s awful!

3. Most Disappointing Book of 2010? A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick – So overrated, I expected a mystery and got a wannabe romance novel. 

4. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2010? Maus I & II Art Spiegelman – Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel about the Holocaust featuring Jews as mice. I didn’t really know what to expect, but it was wonderful.

5. Book you recommended to people most in 2010? Still Alice by Lisa Genova – A brilliant woman’s descent into the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, from her own perspective. I’ve found myself recommending it to just about everyone.

6. Best series you discovered in 2010? Percy Jackson and the Olympians Rick Riordan and The Dark is Rising Susan Cooper – Why are all the good series for young adults? Obviously that’s an exaggeration, there’s some great adult stuff too, but these two are my two favs this year and they both fall in that category. So does the Hunger Games, though I discovered that one last year.

7. Favorite new authors you discovered in 2010? Sarah Waters, Willa Cather and Terry Pratchett – Masterful Victorian twists, quiet farmers in Nebraska and clever British quips, each author left me wanting to devour everything else they’ve written.

8. Most hilarious read of 2010? The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby and Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse – Hornby writing about reading, but in his own hilarious way and Jeeves and Wooster will never fail to make me laugh. 

9. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2010? The Girl Who Played With Fire Stieg Larsson – I loved the rest of the series too, but this one never slow down for a second.

10. Book you most anticipated in 2010? Great House by Nicole Krauss and The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – These two authors wrote two of my all-time favorite books. When they both released new novels this year I could hardly stand the wait until I had them in my hands.

11. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2010? Other than the glorious Penguin classics, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, Juliet, Naked Nick Hornby and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (see picture above)

12. Most memorable character in 2010? Flavia de Luce from the Alan Bradley mysteries and Aibileen from The Help by Kathryn Stockett. One is a precocious 11-year-old British girl, the other is a stoic black maid in Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement. Such different creations, but both stayed with me long after I finished the books.

13. Most beautifully written book in 2010? Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – New York City in the 1970s, provincial France in the 19th century, luscious prose in both. 

14. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2010? The Haidmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – What a book! Go read it immediately.

15. Book you can't believe you waited UNTIL 2010 to finally read? Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – I just loved this one and though I’ve read a lot of Dickens in the past, I’ve never had that reaction before.

How about you guys? New favorite authors, best book you read, how was your 2010 in reading?

Friday Favorites: The Polysyllabic Spree

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Polysyllabic Spree
by Nick Hornby

This collection of Hornby’s essays from the magazine The Believer, was beyond delightful. He writes about what books he bought each month and which ones he read. In anyone else’s hands that concept could be as dull as dirt, but Hornby makes you feel like you’ve just asked your friend, “So what have you been reading lately?”

He read a wide range of subjects in fiction, nonfiction, classics, etc. so there’s something for everyone. The funny thing was, it really wasn’t about the books themselves, it’s more about his personal reading experience. You can love his columns without ever picking up one of the books he mentions (though I evitably will).

It’s his humor and cheek that made this book so great. The way he describes reading is spot on and I couldn’t help laughing as I recognized myself in so many of his observations. Here are a few great ones…

“I don't reread books often; I'm too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality.”

“When reading is going well, one book leads to another and to another, a paper trail of theme and meaning; and how, when it's going badly, when books don't stick or take, when your mood and the mood of the book are fighting like cats, you'd rather do anything but attempt the next paragraph or to reread the last one for the tenth time.”

“What you must do is work unceasingly, day and night, read constantly, study, exercise willpower... Every hour is precious.”

Book Reviews: Girl in Hyacinth Blue

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Girl in Hyacinth Blue
by Susan Vreeland

This collection of short stories begins with the reclusive owner of a beautiful painting, which he believes to be a Vermeer. The seven that follow trace the ownership of the painting back through decades. Some touch on the Holocaust, other delve into Dutch history, all the stories are connected by the common thread of the painting and the effect it has on each of its owners.

There are love stories, tales of poor farmers and rich aristocrats, and even one featuring Vermeer himself. I was expecting this to be a boring read (I have no idea why), but I found myself really enjoying each account of the paintings journey through the years. Vreeland gives us a glimpse into eight very different worlds, obviously some of the tales work better than others, but all of them are interesting. She also manages to capture the reader’s attention with the first story and give the collection a sense of resolution with the final one.

Wordless Wednesday: Cheese Shop

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A San Francisco cheese shop (aka heaven)

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Book Reviews: The Grim Grotto

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

** There are no spoilers of Book 11, but this review assumes you’ve read the first 10 books in the series.

The Grim Grotto (Book 11)
By Lemony Snicket

I’ve been disappointed with the past few books in the Series of Unfortunate Events, but book 11 reminded me of why I liked it to begin with. After this one, there are only two more volumes left in the series, so I was happy to find that the Baudelaire orphans were making some headway in solving the mystery of VFD.

Sunny, Violet and Klaus meet Captain Widdershin and catch a ride on his submarine, the Queequeg. His step-daughter Fiona is both kind and knowledgeable and Klaus takes a particular liking to her. The novel is funny and clever, especially the first half. I found myself enjoying the book much more before Count Olaf made an appearence. His scenes tend to wear me out because they rarely vary.

Along the way we catch up with old characters and meet a few new ones. Fiona and her step-father are great additions to the series. We also get a few more answers and for the first time I felt like we were nearing a resolution.

Victorian Literature Challenge

Monday, December 6, 2010

Let the challenges begin! In the last two weeks I have seen 2011 reading challenges popping up all over the blogosphere. I can’t believe it’s already time for that! I will probably join a couple challenges for 2011, but I’m trying to reign myself in a bit. I tend to want to join every single one I hear about, because I love making lists and crossing things off.

Bethany is hosting the
Victorian Literature Challenge at words, words, words and I can’t help myself. There are so many Victorian era authors I love and a dozen more that have been on my TBR list for too long. So here are some of the details (you can visit her site for the rest)… 

This challenge will run from Jan. 1, 2011 - Dec. 31, 2011.

Participants can sign up at any time throughout the year.

Read your Victorian literature.

Queen Victoria reigned from 1837-1901. If your book wasn't published during these particular years, but is by an author considered "Victorian," go for it. We're here for reading! Also, this can include works by authors from other countries, so long as they are from this period.

Literature comes in many forms.

There are so many Victorian reads out there, including novels, short stories, and poetry. One poem doesn't count as a "book," though. Instead, pick up an anthology instead!

Choose from one of the four levels:
Sense and Sensibility: 1 - 4 books

Great Expectations: 5 - 9 books 

Hard Times: 10 - 14 books
Desperate Remedies: 15+ books

1) Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895)
2) Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853)

3) The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)
4) Middlemarch by George Eliot (1874)
5) David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)

6) Lady Susan by Jane Austen (1871) 
7) The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881)
8) The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)

9) Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)10) The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (1897)
11) Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)
12) North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)
13) The Warden by Anthony Trollope (1855)

14) Heidi by Johanna Spyri (1880)
15) Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)

16) Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac (1846)
17) King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard (1885)
18) Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1869)

19) The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
20) The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Writings by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
21) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869)

22) A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)
23) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1845)

Despite my giant list, I’m committing to the Great Expectations level of 5 to 9 books. But I tend to get a bit ambitious with these things and I might end up doing the Desperate Remedies level (15+), we’ll see. I figured I would list 20 I want to get to this year, then I will hopefully read at least half of them.

I haven’t read any of the books on this list, but Austen, Dickens, Doyle, Bronte, James and Wharton are old favorites and I try to read at least one new thing from each of them each year.

I’ve read books by Gaskell, Verne, Kipling, Collins, Eliot and Wells, but want to get to know each author better.

I have never read anything by Trollope, Thackeray, Spyri, Balzac, Haggard, Gilman, Hardy or Dumas, but have always wanted to. I didn’t want to read any author twice for this challenge, so that’s the list I’m going to be choosing from.

Happy reading to all and I hope some of you join in on this challenge if it sounds like fun.

***UPDATE: The books I completed are in bold above. I read 15 books for the challenge and completed the Desperate Remedies Level!**

Friday Favorites: Half Magic

Friday, December 3, 2010

Half Magic

by Edward Eager


It’s rare to stumble upon a book that makes you wish you were a kid again, just so you could read it for the first time while you were young. That’s exactly how I felt about Half Magic.

In the beginning the story is a simple tale of a magic charm which grants wishes in halves. By the end of the book Eager has captured a deeper essence of fear and pain that haunts not only children, but grown-ups as well. Even as adults we can baulk at life when we lose someone we love or must accept new circumstances we don’t enjoy.

The writing reminded me of Roald Dahl, which is the highest compliment I can give. The author portrays the kids so honestly. They were neither angels nor devils, they were just children. At times they were selfish or silly or scared, but all of those emotions rang true.

In one section (ch. 6) Eager describes the four categories that adults fall into when they are around children. It’s a brilliant description that’s both insightful and funny. Eager found that perfect balance of creating a wonderful story, while at the same time slipping in some life lessons.

Here’s a few great lines …

“All of the four children hated Charlie Chaplin, because he was the only thing grown-ups would ever take them to.”

“One of the least admirable things about people is the way they are afraid of whatever they don’t understand.”

Book Reviews: The Book of Lost Things

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Book of Lost Things

by John Connolly

The story opens with David, a 12-year-old boy in England, who is grieving the loss of his mother. Soon his father remarries and moves with his step-mother and half-brother to a new home. He’s frustrated and lonely and he turns to books for comfort, but when he follows their tempting whispers he ends up in another world with no way to get home.

This book is an odd mix between a coming-of-age story a fairy tale and a horror story. Connolly’s brilliantly re-imagines classic fairy tales with adult endings. For example, there are communist dwarves who live with an abusive, obese Snow White. The book’s ultimate foe is the Crooked Man, one of the cruelest, most depraved villain’s I’ve ever encountered in a novel. He is manipulative, evil, violent and vindictive.

This is definitely not a book for kids, but the author never intended it to be. I was a bit shocked by it at first because for some reason I thought it was a YA book. In actuality it’s a fairy tale for adults. At its core it is about remembering the pain of growing up and accepting the heartaches and tough decisions that follow you through life. Once I understood that I enjoyed it much more.

I don’t think this book is for everyone, but even though some moments made me squeamish, I really liked it. I’ve found myself returning to the story frequently after finishing it. I think about the characters and David’s journey and I’ve discover new depths to the challenges he faced along the way. To me, any book that has the power to linger for so long is worth reading.

“Um, and what about happily ever after? asked David. “What does that mean?”

“Eaten quickly,” said Brother Number One.

Wordless Wednesday: San Fran Sunflowers

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sunflowers in the San Fran Saturday market.

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

BBC Book List

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

So I've been seeing this list everywhere, like at Wicked Wonderful Words and Chasing Bawa and I love lists, so I couldn't resist.

The BBC believes most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here. How incredibly depressing is that?

Put an 'x' after those you have read. Unless I counted wrong, I've read 71.75 (I'm counting the 3/4 of Shakespeare's complete works that I've read).

*UPDATED 1/5/16
1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen [X]
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien [X]
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte [X]
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling [X]
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee [X]
6 The Bible [X]
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte [X]
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell [X]
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman [X]
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens [X]
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott [X]
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy [
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller [X]
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare [about 3/4]
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier [X]
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien [X]
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulk [
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger [X]
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger [X]
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot [
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell [X]
22 The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald [X]
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens [
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy [X]
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams [X]
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh [X]
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky [X]
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck [X]
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll [X]
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame [X]
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy [X]
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens [
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis [X]
34 Emma-Jane Austen [X]
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen [X]
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis [X]
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini [X]
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres [
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden [X]
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne [X]
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell [X]
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown [X]
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez [
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving [X]
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins [X]
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery [X]
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy [ ]
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood [X]
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding [X]
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan [X]
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel [X]
52 Dune - Frank Herbert [ ]
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons [
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen [X]
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth [ ]
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos RuIz Zafon [X]
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens [X]
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley [X]
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night - Mark Haddon [X]
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez [ ]
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck [X]
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov [X]
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt [
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold [X]
65 The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas [
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac [X]
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy [
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding [X]
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie [ ]
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville [
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens [X]
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker [X]
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnet [X]
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson [X]
75 Ulysses - James Joyce [ ]
76 The Inferno – Dante [X]
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome [
78 Germinal - Emile Zola []
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray [
80 Possession - AS Byat [X]
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens [X]
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell [
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker [X]
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro [X]
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert [X]
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry [ ]
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White [X]
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom [X]
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle [X]
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton [ ]
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad [X]
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery [X]
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks [ ]
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams [X]
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole [X]
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute [ ]
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas [
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare [X]
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl [X]
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo [X]

Photo by moi.

Book Reviews: Promises to Keep

Monday, November 29, 2010

Promises to Keep
by: Jane Green

Green’s latest is an overlapping tale of a few women. Callie is a cancer survivor and a mother or two with loving, workaholic husband. Her sister Steffi is living with her rocker boyfriend and working as a vegan chef. Callie’s best friend Lila is an average looking girl who almost got married out of a sense of obligation, but backed out at the last minute. Now, at 42, she’s finally in love. Despite the surface summary, the plot takes a darker turn than many of Green’s previous novels, which gives it a bit more depth.

I didn’t love this book because there were far too many different stories being woven together. We hear bits and pieces from the point-of-view of the two sisters, their mother, their single father, their friend Lila, a customer of Steffi’s, etc.

Steffi’s subplot with her customer/friend Mason could easily have been axed. Also, the friend Lila’s decision to have or not have kids added little to the story. It’s not that the subplots are bad, they’re just distracting. Green also adds a recipe at the end of each chapter and that got old after a bit. It isn’t a cookbook and wasn’t really necessary.


Towards the second half of the book we realize that Callie’s cancer has relapsed and the book finds its much need focus.

“It was a dream in which Steffi was shocked and thrilled to find Callie was alive, that it had all been a terrible mistake. She awoke, the dream as vivid as life, and burst into tears. For the entire week she bore again the weight of the loss, suddenly as sharp and searing as it had ever been.”

That line is what told me Green experienced this loss, somehow, in her own life. I know those dreams and have had them too many times. You wake, completely forgetting that person is gone, and slowly the memory of their death creeps into your consciousness and breaks your heart all over again.

I found out later that Green lost a close friend to this rare form of breast cancer and this book was born of that grief.

Wordless Wednesday: Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving (tomorrow)!

This year I'm so thankful for...

- The Huz and the hilarious zombie movies he watches

- Endless piles of books to read

- Our home, which includes my very own library

-Live theater and the fact that I get to enjoy it every week

- Wonderful new friends in the blogosphere

-My new job (being laid off is no fun)

-Family and friends that love and support me

I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving and I'll be back on Monday.

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Book Reviews: All Creatures Great and Small

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

All Creatures Great and Small
by James Herriot

When I was young I wanted to be an author and a vet when I grew up. Knowing this, my parents introduced me to the writing of James Herriot, who was both. Later I decided that having to fiddle with animal innards everyday is not the same as owning pets and I veered more towards the writing side of my ambitions, but it never affected my love for Herriot’s writing. I’d already read his collections, Dog Stories, Animal Stories and Cat Stories and some of the tales in those volumes are drawn from this book. But they’re such sweet tales that it was a pleasure to re-read them.

This memoir, the first in the series, introduces us to James Herriot, a Scottish vet working in rural England in the first half of the 20th century. His writing has a wonderful warm feeling. He can find the humor in any situation, while at the same time understanding the seriousness of others. He manages to portray the bittersweet nature of his job with an admirable sincerity, never deriding his clients’ love of their animals and treating each case with the utmost importance.

I love reading Herriot’s funny stories about his early days as a vet. Each one is told with a dry British sense of humor. Some of them are a bit too detailed (talking about the animal procedures) and make me squeamish, but that’s to be expected and it’s always relevant info. His descriptions of the stoic farmers and eccentric partners are a constant source of amusement throughout the book. I found myself wishing that the book wouldn’t end, which is a rare thing.

Book Reviews: Voltaire's Calligrapher

Monday, November 22, 2010

Voltaire’s Calligrapher
by Pablo De Santis

Dalessius is a 20-year-old calligrapher who ends up working for the philosopher Voltaire in France during the Enlightenment. Interesting enough premise, but the plot never found its pace for me. It felt disjointed and confusing. There are automatons, secret messages written on naked women, a heart in a jar and other intriguing concepts, but they never mesh into a cohesive story.

The book is only 150 pages and yet it felt like it was much longer. I found myself never wanting to pick it up and I can’t help but wonder if something was lost in translation. Maybe the plot makes more sense in its native language.

I did really enjoy some of Santis’ descriptions of the people Dalessius meets on his journeys. Here’s one description of a watchmaker…

“Her many years around clocks had given her words a regular beat, as if each syllable corresponded exactly to a fraction of time.”

I received a complimentary copy of Voltaire’s Calligrapher by Pablo De Santis from Regal Literary to review.

Friday Favorites: Fahrenheit 451

Friday, November 19, 2010

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

That is undoubtedly one of the best opening lines in history. It’s simple, beautiful and so complex once you realize what they are burning. For me, Fahrenheit 451 was one of those rare books that shook me to my core. I had read Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, but this dystopia was so much more terrifying to me. It shows a world in which books were illegal paraphernalia and owning them was cause for death.

Our hero, Guy Montag, is a firefighter, but in this future reality firefighters are the ones who start the blaze, not put it out. They are employed to find and burn books and Montag never questions his profession. Then one night he meets a girl who changes everything for him. She’s not empty and cold like his wife. She sparks some bit of life in Montag and he begins to question the world around him.

The most disturbing aspect of the plot is that the people chose to stop reading books, no one forced them. They became obsessed with television and books take too much time and effort. It’s a bit too close to our current reality for comfort.


My favorite part of Fahrenheit 451 is the brilliance of how Bradbury decided to preserve books that must be burned. The characters themselves become the books. Individuals all over the world memorized and entire novel or book in the Bible and through them the book was kept alive.


If you’ve never read this classic I would encourage every book lover to pick it up. It’s less than 200 pages, but it packs such a powerful punch that it remains one of my favorite books of all-time.

I recently read the graphic novelization of this book and it was wonderful. The illustrations are done in vivid shades of orange and red throughout much of the book, bringing the fire to life on each page. The graphic novel pays close attention to the details and portrayed the story beautifully. I would recommend reading the actual novel first, so you can create the world in your own imagination first, but the graphic novel is a wonderful treat for those who are familiar with the book.

Book Reviews: The Haunting of Hill House

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson

Dr. Montague is a scientist attempting to prove the supernatural exists. To further his study he invites a small group of people to summer at Hill House, which is supposedly haunted. The invitation is accepted by Eleanor, a socially awkward, nervous woman and Theo, an outgoing beauty. Luke, who will one day inherit the house, also joins the gathering. Soon things start happening and all four people wonder what they’ve gotten themselves into.

Jackson’s ghost story has a similar feel to Henry James’ Turning of the Screw and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. You know things are happening in the house, but you don’t know for sure whether it’s the inhabitants madness or ghosts or a combination of both.

Eleanor, who is the focus of the book, seems to have a predisposition to mental instability. She’s insecure and temperamental, a bit like a child. Her issues give the whole book and extra layer of creepiness and desperation.

Side Note: About 20 pages into the book I realized that the 1999 movie “The Haunting” was clearly based on it. I also watched the original film, also titled “The Haunting” after finishing the book. The older version stays much closer to the book and the spookiness factor is high. The movie “The House on Haunted Hill” actually has nothing to do with this book.

Wordless Wednesday: Crater Lake National Park

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Crater Lake National Park

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Book Review: The Adoration of Jenna Fox a.k.a. I love dystopian novels

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Adoration of Jenna Fox
by Mary E. Pearson

Jenna is a 17-year –old who wakes up after an 18 month coma. Slowly her memories begin to return and some disturbing truths are revealed. This dystopian novel deals mainly with science vs. ethics and is hard to put down.

I love dystopian novels. Some of my favorite books fall into this category. I love how truths of human nature are often revealed in these stories and the fact that they’re never very far from our current reality. Writing a book set in a future or parallel world gives the author the freedom to explore touchy issues in an abstract way.

In dystopian novels the line between good and bad is always blurred, it is an exploration of gray in a way that shows just how black and white things often are (if that makes any sense.) The bad guys always have a perfectly reasonable explanation for all the choices they’ve made. Sometimes they even make some convincing arguments, but then you remember what they’ve done and you’re horrified that you even considered siding with them for an instant.


For example, in Fahrenheit 451 they burn books, in The Giver they have forced euthanasia, in The Hunger Games it’s the slaughter of children for entertainment.

******SPOILER OVER*********

Though I was completely swept away by this book at first, it seemed to unravel a bit in the second half. I don’t think Pearson knew what point she was trying to make. It was like she was using the book as a platform to discuss the issue and in the first half she brought up some chilling points, then in the second half she seemed to just waffle back and forth on whether she thought it was right or wrong.

My favorite part of the whole book is the character of Lily, Jenna’s grandma. She is the grounding factor for me, the one I can relate to. She’s in the story, but she isn’t the one who has made any of the decisions, so she can be a bit more objective.

The inspiration for this book was born out of Pearson’s own experiences. Her eldest daughter was diagnosed with cancer, then a few years later her youngest daughter was diagnosed with the same cancer. Those traumatic events led her to explore the question of science vs. ethics and wonder how far a parent would be willing to go to save their child. It’s a fascinating exploration, but she didn’t seem to be able to answer her own question.

It’s definitely worth reading, but some elements are far-fetched and it seems to really have to reach to wrap everything up at the end. I do think this would be a fun one to discuss in a book club.

Fluttering Butterflies has a great review here.

Book Reviews: Nation

Monday, November 15, 2010

by Terry Pratchett

This was my first experience with Pratchett and it will not be my last. After hearing about him for years, I decided I just had to read something of his. Nymeth at Things Mean A Lot is a big Pratchett fan and was kind enough to suggest Nation as a good place to start.

It took me a minute to get into the book. I wasn’t sure what to expect and at first I wasn’t sure what to make of the story. It centers on Maw, the only survivor of the Nation, which is destroyed by a tsunami. He is left alone, disconnected from all he has ever known and he’s at once filled with grief, confusion and anger. He turns to the Nation’s gods for answers and is left feeling more lost than ever.

The plot really picks up when we meet Daphne (really Ermintrude, but she hates that name, so she says her name is Daphne.) She is a British girl whose ship has crashed on the island. Her relationship with Maw reminded me so much of Peter Pan and Wendy. She’s prim and proper at first and he is baffled by her ways, but soon they find a balance and develop a wonderful friendship.

The best parts of the book, for me, were the interactions between those two. Once they moved past their initial impressions they realized they could learn so much from one another. I also loved seeing Daphne gain confidence in herself. She was such a great character; part girl, part woman, trying to come to terms with her own grief and grow up at the same time.

With absolutely no spoilers included I do want to say how much I loved the ending. The characters grew on me throughout the book and by the end I felt so invested in them. The ending definitely increased my rating of the book and my overall love of it. So if it feels slow at first, definitely give it time.

I have to say I was really impressed with Pratchett. He has a similar writing style to Neil Gaiman (whom I adore) and the delightful sense of humor of Douglas Adams. So clearly he’s destined to become a favorite. He also manages to balance humor and a deeper message, which I really value in an author. I think that can be a hard thing to accomplish and he seemed to do it effortlessly. At first I didn’t even realize he had slipped such important issues into the fold of the story, but once I did I was really moved by the points-of-view he brings up. I’m looking forward to trying out his Discworld series, which I’ve heard is great. Any other Pratchett suggestions from fans of his out there?

Here's another great review at Chasing Bawa.