Monday, March 10, 2014

The State of the Stacks - Best of January edition



You knew you wouldn't be rid of me for long, right??


While I am still enjoying the freedom of not feeling like I have to blog about every single book I'm reading, I do miss talking about the ones that have made a significant impression - the stories that have engaged my mind or my emotions in a particular way. So to ease myself back into the blogging world, I'm going to start with a "Best Of" each month, and see where that leads. I knew I couldn't stay away for TOO long.....



The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
audio - read by Neil Gaiman
published 2013


Synopsis from publisher -

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie — magical, comforting, wise beyond her years — promised to protect him, no matter what.

My thoughts -

This was just gorgeous. I don't know if listening to the author read his own work enhanced the story, but it was breathtaking. Lettie Hempstock is smart and capable and funny - a terrific heroine. The story is a genuine nail-biter, but it's not even the story that is the remarkable thing - it's the idea of the magic that is inherent in childhood, and the lengths we go as adults to forget. It's a book about memories, and magic, and friendship, and it is unforgettable. Highly recommended.



A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
published 2012
1016 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

In the aftermath of a colossal battle, Daenerys Targaryen rules with her three dragons as queen of a city built on dust and death. But Daenerys has thousands of enemies, and many have set out to find her. Fleeing from Westeros with a price on his head, Tyrion Lannister, too, is making his way east—with new allies who may not be the ragtag band they seem. And in the frozen north, Jon Snow confronts creatures from beyond the Wall of ice and stone, and powerful foes from within the Night’s Watch. In a time of rising restlessness, the tides of destiny and politics lead a grand cast of outlaws and priests, soldiers and skinchangers, nobles and slaves, to the greatest dance of all.

My thoughts -

Okay, full disclosure - I didn't technically finish this one in January. BUT, I read MOST of it that month, so it's a January book. And it was a doozy. This is a series for people who really LOVE this genre - it is destined to be considered one of the great fantasy series of all time, and for good reason. Martin's world is complex and all-encompassing, and each book - even the volumes (like #4) that are not the best are still pretty darn good. HOWEVER. I am beginning to worry that Martin has too much going on - that there will be too many plot threads to bring together - and that the series will ultimately end and feel unsatisfying.

That said, I am all in for the ride. I've invested too much time not to follow this story to it's completion. And even though this book left me feeling unsettled, it was still a darn good adventure. If you enjoy fantasy and you haven't started this series - well, at this point, wait until Martin gets around to finishing the last two books. But really, it's too good to miss. Recommended for series fantasy fans.




The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
published 2014
771 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don't know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love — and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

My thoughts -

Donna Tartt is becoming a go-to author for me when I want troubled characters and immersive worlds that are a million miles away from my own experience. Theo's journey is long and twisty, but ultimately worth the time invested. More than just the story, however, is the examination of fate - are we born destined to a path? Can we change who we are, or is our character - good or bad - set at birth? Thought-provoking and memorable, but also L.O.N.G.  It's a book you have to be fairly invested in to finish. Recommended to readers who are willing to put in the time - I found it to be worth the read in the end.


So there you have it - the highlights of my reading in January. I'll be back soon to give you my most memorable reads of February. Let me know if you agree - or disagree - with any of the books I've highlighted. It's good to be back!



Sunday, January 12, 2014

The State of the Stacks - Blogging Vacation Edition



I've been trying to write my "Year In Review" post for about 10 days now, and each time I sit down at the computer I get stuck. It's not that I don't want to talk about the fantastic books I've read - because I do! I just, for some reason, don't have the motivation to write about them on this platform right now.

I started this blog in May of 2008 - that means I've been writing, fairly regularly, for almost 6 years. My life has changed A LOT since then - new house, 2 kids, busier work environment and additional responsibilities - and keeping up here has become more and more of a challenge. I love the community of bloggers I have come to know, but because of the constraints of my life I feel like I barely have time to keep up with them.

So I think I'm going to take a bit of a "vacation" - a little time off to rest, catch up with the bloggers I love to read, and re-evaluate what part blogging should play in my life. Hopefully, this means you will see me more often at YOUR blog, because I will actually have time to read and comment! I will still depend on you all for book recommendations, and I will let you know when I read something you've suggested.

I don't know how long my "vacation" will last - I don't feel ready to abandon this place forever, but it seems like it's time for a sabbatical of sorts. Until my next post, keep reading, and I'll see you around the blog-o-sphere!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sunday Shorts

The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye
published 1980
112 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Along with Wit, Charm, Health, and Courage, Princess Amy of Phantasmorania receives a special fairy christening gift: Ordinariness. Unlike her six beautiful sisters, she has brown hair and freckles, and would rather have adventures than play the harp, embroider tapestries . . . or become a Queen. When her royal parents try to marry her off, Amy runs away and, because she's so ordinary, easily becomes the fourteenth assistant kitchen maid at a neighboring palace. And there . . . much to everyone's surprise . . . she meets a prince just as ordinary (and special) as she is!

My thoughts -

This is a delightful middle-grade novel by the author of one of my favorite books, The Far Pavilions. In the author's forward, she writes, "...it was only after I had read at least twenty of the stories that I noticed something that had never struck me before - I supposed because I had always taken it for granted. All the princesses...were blond, blue-eyed, and beautiful....This struck me as most unfair, and suddenly I began to wonder just how many handsome princes would have asked a king for the hand of his daughter if that daughter had happened to be gawky, snub-nosed, and freckled, with shortish, mouse-colored hair. None, I suspected."  The Ordinary Princess is Kaye's answer to that question, and it's wonderful. Read it with your child, and rejoice in the wonderful-ness of being ordinary.

Finished - 12/13/13
Source - my shelves
MPAA rating - this is about as G as it gets
My rating - 8/10



The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a 13-year-old Boy with Autism by Naoki Hugashida (translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell)
published in Japan in 2007
135 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

You’ve never read a book like The Reason I Jump. Written by Naoki Higashida, a very smart, very self-aware, and very charming thirteen-year-old boy with autism, it is a one-of-a-kind memoir that demonstrates how an autistic mind thinks, feels, perceives, and responds in ways few of us can imagine. Parents and family members who never thought they could get inside the head of their autistic loved one at last have a way to break through to the curious, subtle, and complex life within.

Using an alphabet grid to painstakingly construct words, sentences, and thoughts that he is unable to speak out loud, Naoki answers even the most delicate questions that people want to know. Questions such as: “Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly?” “Why do you line up your toy cars and blocks?” “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?” and “What’s the reason you jump?” (Naoki’s answer: “When I’m jumping, it’s as if my feelings are going upward to the sky.”) With disarming honesty and a generous heart, Naoki shares his unique point of view on not only autism but life itself. His insights — into the mystery of words, the wonders of laughter, and the elusiveness of memory — are so startling, so strange, and so powerful that you will never look at the world the same way again.

My thoughts -

Hmmm. The idea of this book is quite interesting - I just question how much "freedom" the translators took in their translation. Some of the wording seemed odd for a young boy from Japan. It is certainly brave of the young author to write these words, and it is a unique perspective on the mind of autism.

Finished - 12/14/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - G
My rating - 6/10



A Kiss At Midnight by Eloisa James
published 2010
372 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Forced by her stepmother to attend a ball, Kate meets a prince . . . and decides hes anything but charming. A clash of wits and wills ensues, but they both know their irresistible attraction will lead nowhere. For Gabriel is promised to another woman; a princess whose hand in marriage will fulfill his ruthless ambitions.

Gabriel likes his fiance; which is a welcome turn of events, but he doesn't love her. Obviously, he should be wooing his bride-to-be, not the witty, impoverished beauty who refuses to fawn over him.

Godmothers and glass slippers notwithstanding, this is one fairy tale in which destiny conspires to destroy any chance that Kate and Gabriel might have a happily ever after.

Unless a prince throws away everything that makes him noble . . .

Unless a dowry of an unruly heart trumps a fortune . . .

Unless one kiss at the stroke of midnight changes everything.

My thoughts - 

I'm honestly not sure how this ended up on my shelf - it is really not my typical genre. I have to say, though, it was pretty darn entertaining. Obviously nothing was a major surprise, but the banter was fun and the story a unique twist on the Cinderella tale. If you are looking for a quick, fun read you could certainly do worse.

Finished - 12/17/13
Source - my shelves
MPAA rating - R, kids. It's a bodice-ripper.
My rating - 7/10

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book Thoughts - Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
published 7/10/12
464 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered — in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

My thoughts -

I've seen this novel on several "Best Of" lists, so when I saw it on my library shelf I had to grab it. Turns out Seraphina deserves all the accolades it has received - this is one fantastic book.

Hartman creates a world for Seraphina that is complex and satisfying, with dragons and humans that clearly have years and years of history behind their tumultuous relationships. I appreciate that while Hartman gives her dragons plenty of personality, they are NOT just humans with scales. They are very, very different beings, and this creates tension on a bunch of different levels.

While Seraphina does find a love interest, this is not a "young girl falls in love" story - this is a story about a girl learning how to accept herself, and figuring out her place in the world, and solving a complicated mystery - oh, and also, she meets this guy. I found it incredibly refreshing to read a YA novel with a female protagonist that did NOT have the love story as the central theme of the book.

The aspect of the novel I appreciate the most is how well it works on multiple levels. Seraphina can easily be read as a fun, intriguing mystery with dragons - as a piece of entertainment, it's fantastic. But Hartman infuses the novel with so many layers - interesting discussions can be had about race, about people with differing abilities, about body image and self-acceptance. Additionally, Hartman is a great writer - she made me laugh, she wrote some incredibly beautiful passages, she kept me riveted from start to finish.

I absolutely loved this novel, and I can't wait to read more in this world. I highly recommend this, both for young adult readers and for those who just love a good fantasy novel. I think this will be a favorite for many years to come.

Finished - 12/12/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - PG-13 for violence
My rating - 9/10


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The State of the Stacks - It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas




You probably won't be surprised by this, but I LOVE Christmas books. Last year, I posted about the books I enjoy reading for myself - this year, I am posting about books I have collected for my kids that are also fun for ME to read.


Little Tree by e.e.cummings and Chris Raschka
published 2006

Synopsis from publisher -

" Little tree/ little silent Christmas tree/ you are so little/ you are more like a flower/ who found you in the green forest/ and were you very sorry to come away? " So begins e. e. cummings` beloved tribute to the tiny evergreen tree, taken away from the cold forest to be decorated and adored by two children in their home at Christmas. Simply and sensitively told from the innocence of a child`s eyes, e. e. cummings` little tree comes to life as the children bestow upon it their heart-felt promises of comfort and love.

My thoughts -

This sweet board book is one of the first Christmas books I read to my kids, and it is such a favorite that we leave it out all year long. It's illustrations are very geometric in design, and contain lots of little surprises to keep young readers engaged. This is a great read-aloud story for young ones, but has enough depth to engage older readers as well. I will probably have to get a new copy soon - we've almost read it to pieces!


Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus by Frances P. Church and Joel Spector
text originally published in 1897; this edition 2001

Synopsis from publisher -

In 1897, a young girl wrote to The New York Sun asking whether Santa Claus truly existed. The paper's response, written by reporter Francis P. Church, has become a beloved holiday literary tradition. An original approach to a children's classic, this captivating book creatively reinterprets that heartwarming letter about the truth behind Santa Claus and Christmas. It is accompanied by charming Victorian artwork. Joel Spector is an artist and illustrator known for his elegant pastel images. His work appears regularly in magazines and newspapers including Business Week, Newsweek, Good Housekeeping, and The  New York Times.

My thoughts -

This classic is probably a bit old for my kids yet - the text, while lovely, is still a little dry for their taste. They can, however, appreciate the beautiful illustrations, and it's fun to watch them sit and turn the pages, completely entranced by the artist's evocation of the Victorian era.


A Snowman Named Just Bob by Mark Kimball Moulton and Karen Hillard Crouch
published 2003

Synopsis from publisher -

Sometimes life presents us with unexpected magical moments. So it is in this tale of a snowman named just Bob: when a young child builds a snowman, he comes to life just long enough to impart a few thoughts about the importance of building and holding friendships dear. Illustrated with warmth and whimsy, this book is a classic story the whole family can share.

My thoughts -

This book has wonderful illustrations as well as a delightful story about a young boy and his snowman. Bob is the kind of snowman I always wished I could build, and he introduces kids to the magic of winter and friendship. It's a book for kids that I don't mind reading over and over again.


The Christmas Story by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
published 2009

Synopsis from publisher -

The timeless story of Christmas is beautifully retold through paintings by some of the worlds greatest artists. Borrowing from The Metropolitan Museum of Arts extensive and rich collection, The Christmas Story depicts the Nativity through visual narration with the aid of paintings by, among others, Petrus Christus, Gerard David, and Hans Memling. Gold accents on the book jacket and interior pages make for a glorious and lush book.

The artworks, sensitively coupled with excerpts from the King James Version of the Bible, create a book that will be treasured by the entire family for years to come.

My thoughts - 

What more is there to say? The King James Bible mixed with great works of art from the Met make this a true piece of art - again, my kids are too young to truly grasp it's merit, but it will be a book they will grow into through the years.


Christmas in America edited by David Cohen
published 1988

Synopsis from publisher -

A photographic panorama of our nation during the holiday season. From Thanksgiving to Epiphany, 100 of the country's top magazine and newspaper photographers scattered across the nation to document how we prepare for, celebrate, survive and clean up after Christmas. 175 photos.

My thoughts -

This is a fantastic collection, ranging from humorous to poignant. It's a book to page through, not necessarily to read from cover to cover, but each page has a treasure to discover. While not specifically designed for kids, mine absolutely love it.


The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore and Robert Sabuda
published 2004


Synopsis -

It's the classic Christmas story paired with incredible paper popups by artist Robert Sabuda. Breathtaking.

My thoughts -

We have 4 holiday books by Sabuda, and each is absolutely gorgeous. These are, clearly, not great for younger kids - mine still have to be reminded to be gentle each time they look. But oh, the wide-eyed wonder these books elicit in children.


These are just a few of the (ever-growing) stacks of holiday books that have found a spot on our shelves. What are your favorite holiday books to share with the youngsters?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Kid Konnection - Fancy Nancy by Jane O'Connor


Kid Konnection is a weekly feature hosted by Booking Mama, featuring all things kid's books. Since I spend a good deal of time each week reading kids books, I thought it would be fun to join in!





Fancy Nancy by Jane O'Connor
published 2005
32 pages

Synopsis from publisher -


Meet Nancy, who believes that more is ALWAYS better when it comes to being fancy. From the top of her tiara down to her sparkly studded shoes, Nancy is determined to teach her family a thing or two about being fancy.


How Nancy transforms her parents and little sister for one enchanted evening makes for a story that is funny and warm — with or without the frills.


My thoughts -

I have to admit to being skeptical about this series when I first saw it- considering my daughter's current love of ALL things princess, I saw the cover and assumed we were in for more of the mindless Barbie/Disney Princess/ballerina/etc. type of fluffy story with no real substance.

BUT I was very wrong - Fancy Nancy is very pink, and she is very sparkly, but she is definitely not mindless. Jane O'Connor obviously loves words, and she decorates her books with great ones. Nancy uses words like improvise, and understated, and tells the reader, "Why say hello when you could say bonjour!" My kids love learning new words, and Nancy is such a fun way to introduce great ones into their vocabulary. 

This is a great series - both of my kids love these books, which just shows they are not only for little girls. They are fun for kids AND adults, which make them real winners in my book!


What books can you recommend to introduce new words into my kids' vocabularies? 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Book Thoughts - Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen
published 10/1/13
336 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

It is 1845, and Frances Osgood is desperately trying to make a living as a writer in New York; not an easy task for a woman--especially one with two children and a philandering portrait painter as her husband. As Frances tries to sell her work, she finds that editors are only interested in writing similar to that of the new renegade literary sensation Edgar Allan Poe, whose poem, "The Raven" has struck a public nerve.

She meets the handsome and mysterious Poe at a literary party, and the two have an immediate connection. Poe wants Frances to meet with his wife since she claims to be an admirer of her poems, and Frances is curious to see the woman whom Edgar married.

As Frances spends more and more time with the intriguing couple, her intense attraction for Edgar brings her into dangerous territory. And Mrs. Poe, who acts like an innocent child, is actually more manipulative and threatening than she appears. As Frances and Edgar's passionate affair escalates, Frances must decide whether she can walk away before it's too late...

My thoughts -

This book was somewhat frustrating for me. I thought the premise was quite interesting, and since I enjoy Poe's work very much, I was excited to gain a bit more insight into his life. His relationship with his much younger wife has always been a bit of a mystery, and I have to admit a fascination with the mind behind the stories.

I understand this is a work of fiction, based on a supposition at best, but I had a very hard time believing Cullen's vision of Poe. Honestly, I had a hard time believing in either of the main characters - I didn't ever feel like I truly understood the motivation behind the increasingly dangerous choices they were making. Their relationship didn't really make sense, and Cullen often had her characters using what felt like 21st century opinions to justify the actions of Poe and Frances.

The character that felt the most true to me was Virginia Poe, who was clearly supposed to be crazy. Her desperation and fear seemed a logical reaction to the situations around her, and she was the one I had the most sympathy for. Poe and Frances came to seem somewhat petulant, and I had a hard time rooting for their relationship.

Despite this, I did find myself continuing on with the story. I think Cullen is actually a good writer, who just didn't quite find the best subject for her work. Her descriptions of person and place were evocative, and I enjoyed the actual reading of the novel.

While it wasn't what I had hoped it would be, Mrs. Poe did keep me interested enough to finish the novel. I would be interested to read more work by the author, because I think she has potential greater than what was realized in this work.

Finished - 11/29/13
Source - review copy from publisher via Netgalley - thank you!
MPAA rating - PG-13 for some adult themes
My rating - 6/10