I’m back! And Faves from ’09

So, I made it to my new home in Florida in one piece.  :)  I have to say, it was quite a journey driving down here (from Chicago), moving everything in quickly so as to return the truck on time, and starting to get our new place in order, but the rough spots have been ironed out (mostly) and we are moved in.  I was so excited yesterday to get my computer set up so I can get back to blogging and catching up with all of you.  I logged onto Google Reader today to find 1000+ unread posts, and although I was expecting that, I became very overwhelmed.  I’ve been slowly reading some of your posts, but don’t expect many comments this week – I kind of just want to get through it so I can start fresh.  So I’ll be reading those fast. :)

I have five reviews to finish to wrap up the books I’ve read in 2009, so expect to see some or all of those this week.  I would like to quickly highlight my favorite books of 2009.  I’m going to break them down into young adult fiction, adult fiction, and nonfiction.  Here they are:

Young Adult Fiction faves:

Looking for Alaska by John Green – This book hit me so hard I can’t properly explain it.  It just reached out, grabbed my heart, and did not let go.  I loved it so much.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson – I just found the ideas in this book to be so fascinating.  And the way the story was put together completely drew me in – I loved the characters and everything else about the novel.

North of Beautiful by Justina Chen HeadleyThis one really resonated with me because I truly identified with the main character.  There were aspects of her personality that were so like my own, I couldn’t help but be drawn to her and become invested in her story.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork – To say that I LOVED this book would be an understatement.  Marcelo truly captured my heart, and the story itself was just so beautiful.  I loved every single thing about this novel.

Hate List by Jennifer BrownI shed more than a few tears while reading this one.  The story was just so beautifully written, while being heartbreakingly sad at the same time.  It was also one of the more realistic teen books I’ve ever read.

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness – I loved both of Ness’s novels, but I liked the second one just a smidge better than The Knife of Never Letting Go.  I highly recommend this series.

Catching Fire by Suzanne CollinsAgain, I loved both books in this series.  I can’t really pick a favorite between Catching Fire and The Hunger Games, so I would just encourage you to read this series too.

Adult Fiction faves:

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – This book is every bit as creepily awesome as everyone says it is.  It had such a sinister feel to it, and such interesting (and confusing) characters, I just loved it.  And you can’t beat the length – it’s readable in one afternoon.

The Road by Cormac McCarthyThe Road is not an easy read, but it’s so worth it.  There is just this gorgeous quality to this novel that is impossible to put into words.  It’s painful but beautiful all at once.

The Laws of Harmony by Judith Ryan Hendricks – I fell in love with this adorable book from page 1.  Everything about it – the characters, the sense of place, the story of how one woman’s past creates incredible pain in her present/future – I loved.  I can’t recommend this one enough.

The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner – Historical fiction at its absolute best.

Everything Asian by Sung J. Woo – This “novel in stories” completely won me over.  There was something so charming about this book, and I really couldn’t put it down.

City of Refuge by Tom Piazza – This is absolutely my favorite fiction book of the year.  The way Piazza managed to personalize Hurricane Katrina and put faces and personalities and lives on people who lived through the disaster amazed me.  Also, he so captured the feel of New Orleans that now I really would like to travel there.  This book is beyond words – I more than loved it.

In the Woods by Tana French – I know you’ve all heard about what an amazing writer French is … well, it’s all true.  She’s seriously amazing at crafting a suspenseful story, creating complex and realistic characters, and putting it all together in a way that tugs at your heart.  I loved both this and The Likeness, her other novel.

Nonfiction faves:

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver – This book forced me to look at food in a whole new way.  I haven’t really put into practice much of what Kingsolver suggests, but I really learned a lot and still consider making big changes with regard to my own consumption in the future.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell - I’m not sure how factual Gladwell’s conclusions are, but he sure convinced me.  This was a very thought-provoking read for me.

The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks – Saks’ memoir about dealing with schizophrenia for her entire life is so eye-opening that I suggest everyone read it.  She is an incredibly brave person with quite a story to tell.  I was totally entranced by this book and Elyn’s story.

Yes Means Yes! edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman – This essay collection was very hard for me to review because I shared some really personal stuff in my review.  But I felt it was necessary to do so, and I’m glad I did.  I cannot possibly explain how important I think this book is.  Everyone should read it.

I read a LOT of seriously awesome books this year, and while those were my faves, there were easily 10 or 20 more I’d like to gush about.  I’m really hoping that my year of reading in 2010 will be just as awesome.

Happy New Year everyone!  See you all in 2010. :)

Merry Christmas!

I just wanted to take a moment to with all of you a very Merry Christmas or happy holidays or just hope you enjoy the day. :)  This is going to be my last post until at least New Year’s Day, as I am moving on Monday and finishing packing today and tomorrow.  I then will be driving down to Florida for a couple days, getting settled in, and then it will be New Year’s Eve before I know it!

I’ve had a great year of reading and blogging, and I so appreciate each and every one of you for reading my blog and sticking around all year.  I’m so lucky that I’ve become closer friends with so many of you and I’m so excited to start my 2010 year blogging (my third year!!).

Have a happy and safe holiday, everyone.  Until next year. :)

Challenge Completed: Book Awards III

YES!!  I am very proud of myself for finishing the Book Awards III Challenge because as of last week, I was resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to complete it.  But then I picked up Bel Canto, just hoping and praying that I would get through it quickly, and it was AWESOME!  I won’t be reviewing Bel Canto until early next year, but I wanted to quickly post this before year’s end so that I am DONE with all challengs posts for 2009.  :)  Here’s my Book Awards III list:

1.  Jesus Land – Julia Scheeres (Alex Award) review

2.  Jellicoe Road – Melina Marchetta (Printz Award) review

3.  Blankets – Craig Thompson (Eisner Award) review

4.  Dear Mr. Henshaw – Beverly Cleary (Newberry) review

5.  Bel Canto – Ann Patchett (Orange Prize)

I’m thinking that next year I won’t participate in the Book Awards challenge, but rather read more deliberately and try to complete an entire list of award winners.  I’m thinking I’ll start with the Orange Prize, since I have read quite a few of the short-listed books and winners, and I tend to enjoy them.  I’m not ready to make a decision on that yet, though, so we’ll see.

Wild Roses by Deb Caletti

Title:  Wild Roses
Author:  Deb Caletti
Release date:  April 29, 2005
Publisher:  Simon Pulse
Pages:  320
Genre:  Young Adult fiction
Source:  Library

Cassie Morgan has always had a relatively normal life, but that all changed when her parents got divorced and her mom married famous violinist Dino Cavelli.  Suddenly Cassie is walking on eggshells in her own home, avoiding her arrogant and moody stepfather, and friends at school would do anything to get a visit into her (Dino’s) home.  Everyone envies her, but she wishes more than anything that Dino and his terrifying ways would just walk out of her life forever.  When Ian Waters, a promising young violinist, shows up to take private lessons from Dino, Cassie is smitten right away.  Even though Dino strictly forbids Cassie and Ian from being together, they can’t stay apart for long and soon become a couple.  But with Ian’s pending audition to a prestigious music school and Dino’s new CD release coming up around the same time, Dino’s depression, mania, and paranoia quickly spiral out of control.  While Cassie’s mother struggles to manage Dino, Cassie must figure out if she really wants this newfound relationship with Ian.

I’ve seen other bloggers rave about Deb Caletti for years, but for some reason I just hadn’t gotten around to trying her books out until now.  Caletti has been compared to Sarah Dessen (one of my favorite authors) a number of times, and I have to admit that I can see the similarities between the two authors based on this novel.  I will say, however, that Caletti isn’t quite as wonderful as I believe Dessen to be, but this was still an enjoyable read.

The characters in this novel were extremely believable and mostly likable as well.  Cassie especially was a character that I really rooted for.  There had been so much change in her life in just a few short years, and most of the changes were for the worse, not the better, but she was very mature about everything.  Even though she hated her stepfather, she really tried to make their relationship okay for her mother’s sake.  She knew she would never get along with him, yet she still tried to stay out of his way and on his good side so as not to cause conflict in the house.  In addition, she was constantly put in the middle by her parents – especially her dad – yet she handled that so well.  She was the type of character I really pull for, the type of character I hope throughout the entire book that things will work out for in the end.

The best parts of the novel, for me, revolved around Dino’s spiral out of control, his way of slowly losing grip on reality and becoming a paranoid, manic person who scared Cassie to death.  These parts were definitely scary, but I think that Caletti handled this subject very well.  She was able to portray mental illness respectfully and realistically while still putting it into a teenager’s point of view.  Cassie reacted to Dino’s issues in much the same way any other teenager would – she was terrified of him, but protective of her mother and ultimately hopeful that he would just leave their family eventually.  I was slightly annoyed with her mother’s reaction to Dino’s episodes, although I suppose her reaction was realistic too – when someone you love is going through an illness like this, your first instinct is to protect and help that person, even when you are jeopardizing your own safety in the process.  And that’s exactly what Cassie’s mom did – so although I didn’t like how she handled Dino, I think their relationship was true to form.

There were a few things about Wild Roses I wasn’t crazy about.  The characters, with the exceptions of Cassie and Dino, weren’t very fleshed-out.  They were all sort of one-dimensional in that they acted one way throughout the entire novel, and just didn’t seem realistic at all.  I didn’t really “get” Ian, so I wasn’t too into his and Cassie’s relationship – he wasn’t complex enough of a character for me to latch onto.  Same with Cassie’s father – part of me wanted to root for him to find happiness in his own life, but he wasn’t enough of a character for me to really care about him in the end.  I also was confused by the fact that Cassie didn’t seem to have any close girlfriends.  In young adult books, the girl almost always has a best friend (or friends) and if she doesn’t, there is a clear explanation why not.  Cassie had plenty of acquaintances, but no real friends.  I found that sort of odd.

The bottom line is that I liked Wild Roses but was not blown away by it.  I think that Caletti explored the issue of mental illness really well, but there were some other problems with the book that made it difficult for me to fall in love with her as an author.  If her other books are better than this, I’d be willing to try them out, but I have to admit that as of right now I’m not a huge fan of Caletti and absolutely prefer many other young adult authors.

If you’ve read anything by Deb Caletti, which of her books did you enjoy the most?  And should I read more from her – why or why not?

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Title:  Catching Fire
Author:  Suzanne Collins
Release date:  September 1, 2009
Publisher:  Scholastic Press
Pages:  400
Genre:  Young Adult, Dystopian fiction
Source:  Library
 

Words cannot possibly express my joy at finally finding myself on top of my library’s hold list for Catching Fire.  It seemed like everyone had read it before me, and I just NEEDED to find out what was going to happen to Katniss.  So, YAY, Catching Fire! :)

For those of you who have read these books, you already know the plot.  For those of you who haven’t, I’m just going to say – go read The Hunger Games.  Now.  I’m really not kidding.  These books really are as phenomenal as everyone says, and I can’t recommend them enough.

Catching Fire definitely met any expectations I may have had.  I’ve seen mixed reviews for this second installment in the series, but I have to say that I may have enjoyed the experience of reading this better than The Hunger Games.  (I said might.  I’m still not sure which one I prefer.)  The first book was more of a thrill ride, definitely, but I felt that this one had a bit more substance mixed in with the crazy, twisting plot.  I loved learning a little more about the different districts in Katniss’s world, and the book definitely had a creepy, ominous feel to it that haunted me throughout my reading.  It was clear that there was so much riding on Katniss’s actions, and not only that, but there was a lot more going on underneath the surface that even Katniss wasn’t aware of.  I liked the feeling of trying to figure stuff out along with her.  Although the first book was more insanely suspenseful, this one had more secrets and plot points were much less straightforward.  I really liked that.

I always say that my favorite thing about series books is getting to know the characters, and that was definitely the case with Catching Fire.  I am just as big a fan of Katniss as I was before, if not more having read the second book, and it was great to get more invested in the Katniss/Peeta/Gale love triangle.  I actually would have liked to hear more from Gale – I feel like he’s one of the only characters that could be developed much further than he is.  Most of the rest of the important characters are developed pretty well and are somewhat complex and interesting.  But not Gale – to me, he’s very one-note and I just think Collins could do a lot more with him.

Anyway.  Catching Fire, of course, made me extremely excited for the third book in the series.  The cliffhanger at the end of this one was seriously crazy.  What is Suzanne Collins trying to do to her readers?! 

So, awesome.  I loved Catching Fire just as much as The Hunger Games.  This series is so much fun and I really can’t recommend it highly enough.  Read it!!

Challenge (not) Completed: World Citizen Challenge

Unfortunately it’s come to my attention that I’m not going to be able to finish the World Citizen Challenge this year.  I had committed to the highest level of the challenge, which is reading seven books, including one from each category.  Well, I actually read only six books, and I never did complete a selection for the history category.  :(  If I would have chosen to do any of the other levels I would have finished, but since I didn’t actually do what I told myself I would do, I feel sad.  Oh well.  I’m more than understanding of the fact that there is no possible way I will read a history book in the next week.  So, here’s what I did read:

Politics:

  • We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch review

History:

Economics:

  • The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time by Jeffrey Sachs review

Culture/Anthropology/Sociology:

  • The Good Women of China by Xinran review

Worldwide Issues:

  • The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade by Victor Malarek review

Memoirs/Autobiographies:

  • Slave by Mende Nazar and Damien Lewis review
  • Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist’s Wife by Irene Spencer review

I made a pretty good attempt on this one, but it was just not to be.  If Eva hosts it again this year, hopefully I can be either smarter in my commitment or better at tackling my goal. :)

The Eternal Smile by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim

Title:  The Eternal Smile
Authors:  Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim
Release date:  April 28, 2009
Publisher:  First Second
Pages:  176
Genre:  Graphic novel, short stories
Source:  Library

The three short graphic novels in The Eternal Smile have one thing in common:  things in these stories are not what they seem.  In the first, Duncan’s Kingdom, a brave boy must win over his friend – a princess – by destroying a terrifying frog king.  In the second, The Eternal Smile, Gran’pa Greenbax develops a money-making scheme based on this randomly appearing smile in the sky, a beautiful smile that never disappears.  And in Urgent Request, a quiet young office assistant answers a fraudulent email from Nigerian royalty requesting immediate access to her bank account.  In each of these three stories, the reader expects one thing and as the story unfolds, ends up getting something completely different.

I liked this one.  All three of these stories were intriguing, especially once I realized the truth of each one.  I particularly enjoyed how they had the common theme of fantasy blurring together with reality running through all of them.  There was really only one character that I felt like I got to know (I think it’s difficult to enjoy characters in stories that are this short) and that would be Janet, the young woman from Urgent Request.  She was just so innocent and quiet, but I read along as she gained confidence within herself as the story went along.  I didn’t totally get why she did what she did, but I liked her all the same.

The artwork in The Eternal Smile was excellent.  Each of the three stories had distinctly different styles, but the styles matched the tone of each story.  My favorite artwork was probably that of Urgent Request.  It was very subdued and calming, but really very pretty.  I don’t know – I just really liked looking at it!

I’m not very good at reviewing graphic novels, I’ve come to realize.  I just don’t have a lot to say about The Eternal Smile except for, if you like graphic novels, I recommend this book.  Also, since it’s short stories, it might be a good starting point for someone unfamiliar with the genre.  While it wasn’t my favorite graphic novel I’ve read, I definitely enjoyed reading it and I’m glad I did.