Saturday, April 14, 2018

Review: Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) In Song

25434361Grammy Award-winning and Tony-nominated singer, songwriter, and actress Sara Bareilles has a whole lot of titles to stick onto her name already. 

Which means, of course, I was overjoyed when she decided to add "author" to that lineup! 

Ever since her hit single "Love Song" became a chart-topping success back in 2007, Sara Bareilles has made a career out of her folksy voice, genuine lyrics, and penchant for speaking to the heart of her worldwide fanbase, with songs like "Brave," and "King of Anything." Now, she takes to a different kind of writing platform, to share even more of her life in her own words, including views of her unconventional childhood, how to write a song, her battles with anxiety and depression, and what it took to make the world stop, and listen.

Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song is divided into eight chapters, organized around songs she has written that have been both personal to her, and influential to her career. From her origins with "Love Song," all the way to "She Used to Be Mine," the standout hit from her Tony Award- nominated original score for Waitress: The Musical, the stories held within the book cover not just themes of heartbreak, growth, the industry, and family, but detail what kind of work went into the construction of these notable works of art, and her impressive career.

To be clear (if you haven't been able to tell thus far): Sara is one of my favorite musical acts of all time. As one of my favorite contemporary songwriters, it would make sense that her words would speak to me just as completely through the format of a memoir, as they would through her music.

In fact, this book is one of those things where it's almost hard to review this objectively, due to the sheer amount of love and unconditional support I feel for the person who wrote it. I love Sara, I love her songs, and the feeling's not going away any time soon. Her music has long had a foothold in my life, and I've overjoyed at her continued success.

So, I refuse to distance the concepts of reviewing this as an outsider, versus the status of being a fan: this memoir not only made me love her even more as an already-established admirer, but gave new and additional insight into some of the elements of her career that I've been able to observe from the outside, as a fan, from stories behind the writing of songs I already know all the words to, to the creative process for Waitress, to exactly why she left her judging position on my family's one-time favorite show, The Sing-Off (aka, the a capella reality competition that first brought us the gift that is Pentatonix).

(Also,  in case you were a fan of that show, fellow judge Ben Folds wrote the forward!)

For instance, the story behind "Love Song" is a little different than what you've read or heard before, even when it was told by Sara herself. Her efforts to remain authentic in a media-obsessed industry have helped her carve out a sound and fanbase that's all about celebrating being yourself, which is one of the reasons why "Brave" was so personal to her. And when it comes to the song "Gravity," it captures the feeling of heartbreak so perfectly, because it was an artifact of heartbreak, itself.

In fact, Sara spoke so completely through the memoir, that I ended up highlighting excerpts from some of the chapters, because it meant so much for me to read them. Her writing is conversational and straightforward, while still preserving a sense of artistry that is unique to her style as a performer. In fact, the audio book is even narrated by her, so if you're as big a fan as I am, it might be worth it to hear her tell her own story, in her own voice, out loud.

Regardless, this was probably one of the most meaningful memoirs I've read in the last year.

Final Verdict: Direct, authentic, and incredibly personal, Sara Bareilles' voice shines through her memoir just as completely as it does through her music. Whether you're already a fan of her music, or a fan of celebrity memoirs, I think you should take a chance, and take a listen, because I feel like it's impossible to come out of this not rooting for her unique blend of musicianship and heart.

What's your favorite celebrity memoir? Have you read any written by musicians? Let me know, in the comments below!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Bits of Books: Enchantment of Ravens, The Magician King, Lost Boy

If you're going to settle down to the task of reading a great deal of books, you have to accept the reality that some of those books are going to be better than others. Some might be a total dumpster fire. Some might be a slightly smaller kitchen fire that someone started when they got a lighter too close to a potted plant. And even more so, some of those books are going to be... completely mediocre. You know, okay. Maybe even a little more than okay. Maybe even "perfectly fine."

But you can't just give a two word review like "Perfectly Fine." Instead, that's why I have room for mini-reviews of recent reads, in Bits of Books

An Enchantment of Ravens, Margaret Rogerson

An Enchantment of Ravens is the first novel for Margaret Rogerson, and follows a young painter, named Isobel, whose Craft attracts patronage from many of the fair folk. However, while she frequently finds herself in the company of these unique and dangerous subjects, she makes a crucial mistake when depicting one of the most powerful of all: she paints mortal sorrow into the Autumn Prince's eyes. Now she must travel with him to the Autumn Court and await trial for her crimes.... if they manage to get that far.

The story itself didn't exactly distract me, so much as leave me waiting for it to develop further. There were kernels of interest, new and exciting ideas, that appeared every once in a while, and parts of description where Rogerson really shined; however, too much of it was built on YA genre tropes for me to really grab hold of the narrative without thinking, "I've seen this too many times before."

Even worse, some of those belonged in the more annoying hallmarks of YA, such as insta-love, a regular person who is the chosen one for fairly achievable talents or personality traits, and the typical trappings of an immortal and ageless prince falling in love with a literal teenager.

The world-building felt lackluster, like every time the ideas started to develop outwards more fully, it fell short a couple steps before actually making the journey into a new concept. It was so close to so many different things, that could have been really cool or new, but never quite made it all the way there.

I'm not about to blame my dissatisfaction on the genre, either, as I've read some pretty remarkable fairy-based fantasies recently. Still, while it's easier to take stories about comprehensive high fantasy communities and multiple groups inter-working in one universe, the idea that all fairies exist in this one concise radius, know each other, and interact throughout the courts regularly, seemed a little claustrophobic, as well as unlikely.

All in all, definitely not a great read for me. However, the cover is stunning... and I was interested in enough of the minor nuances of the story concepts that I might be tempted to pick up one of the author's future reads. Maybe.

The Magician King (The Magicians #2), Lev Grossman 

The Magician King, by Lev Grossman, is the second installment in the popular The Magicians series. Once again following Quentin, Elliot, Janet, and Quentin's long-ago classmate Julia, the journey starts in Fillory, where Q finds himself wrapped up in an uncertain quest. Seeking a key at the end of the world, his journey takes him back to Earth, to the canals of Venice, and farther beyond the reaches of Fillory than he even accounted for. His magical education at Brakebills can't help him here... but Julia's unbridled street-learned abilities might just be the thing that takes them home.

In terms of second books that really feel like second books, this is very much a continuation, and in a lot of ways, specifically felt like a bridge for Quentin. The story was much more about Julia, who I enjoyed getting to know better, especially because of how much she'd been sidelined in the first novel. In fact, I still wish her story had been amped up even more.

Additionally, if the series does a great job of making settings feel like characters themselves, and if the main characters in the first book included Brakebills and Fillory, then the second book was oriented more towards Earth - specifically, the safe houses - and Outside-Continental-Fillory. Each place the characters traveled to carried its own distinct ambience and sense of construction.

I almost appreciated being on Earth more, because the narrative couldn't get away with deus ex machina conventionality so much. With Fillory, it often feels like things just happen due to "magic" and it's used as a brush-away excuse, but when confined to the limitations of Earth, even magic is forced into some form of confine that gives it a greater shape and depth.

I'm not terribly satisfied with the ending, but I suppose that's one of the great things about reading a series after its finished. I mean, I can just run out to Barnes and Noble this weekend and pick up a new copy. The same, however, cannot be said for those who read it in the time of its publication... in which case, how did you guys stick through it?

Lost Boy, Christina Henry

Lost Boy, by Christina Henry, is a retelling of J. M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan, told from the viewpoint of Captain Hook, long before he became captain. Before he joined the ranks of the Neverland pirates, and before he ever lost his hand. Back when he was Peter's first and favorite friend, and more often than not, the only thing standing between the other lost boys and some of the more unsavory parts of the island. When he thought that he'd never, ever grow up.

In the scope of adult-oriented fractured fairy tales, it's yet another Peter Pan retelling; this time, courtesy of the Captain. Among the various choices for narrator of various forms of this many-times-fractured tale - Wendy, Peter himself, Tiger Lily, Tink - those featuring the viewpoint of James Hook have always struck me as the most interesting... probably because, like him, I don't particularly care for Peter Pan, either.

It's not that I don't like the original narrative, it's that its a great story with just too many elements within it that rub me the wrong way. The good thing about Lost Boy, is that it adapts to this problem, both honing in on some of that difficulty in order to make it a central conflict, or zapping it out of the plot at all.

For instance, the brutality of Neverland - the endless cycles of violence, especially between boys and pirates, being depicted as fun and games - and the status of each Lost Boy as being someone shucked off by society in the real world, both come into direct conflict with the unbothered, unbloodied boyishness of Peter. These tragic status symbols that are widely brushed over in the original works, are made into plot fixtures in this one: Were the Lost Boys ever really that lost, unwanted, or forgotten? Was it really the children who demanded so much bloodsport? 

Other plot elements, like the problematic depictions of "Indian" tribes in Neverland that have plagued pretty much every adaptation of this story ever, are taken out entirely, and replaced with the antagonizing force of the "Many-Eyed," which are basically giant spiders. While these new creatures could just have been made to be an example of one of the Island's many beasts, they were completely central to the plot, and the tribe was not mentioned in the narrative whatsoever.

The book was okay, and more than that, it was exactly the kind of book I would have loved when I was younger, especially in how it runs up against other Peter Pan adaptations I've loved in the past. However, this book just didn't feel like it went that extra mile in making the story something more than itself. And when you try to retell a story as iconic as this one, you want to make sure the narrative soars all the way to that second star.

Have you read any so-so books recently? Do you have any book reccs for me? Let me know, in the comments below!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review: The Hazel Wood

I had been on a string of reading really good books, including another recent YA fantasy release that I really enjoyed, and was worried that this much-anticipated novel might just get swept up in the tide. However, not only did it end up making an impact all its own, but it soared above and beyond my expectations. 

Basically, you know when you were a kid, and you were reading, and your mom called you away to do some chore, and you had to wrench your brain away from the book like you were emerging from a century-long nap? 

Without being too extra, this book made me feel like that. 

The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert, follows Alice, a teenage girl raised in constant motion, in order to outrun the misfortune that dogs her every step. When danger seems to catch up with her and her mother once more in New York, she knows she has to stop running, once and for all, and confront the past their small family was trying to avoid. Alice can only chart her own story, by finding what laid at the center of another one, so many years ago, in her grandmother's best-selling book of fairy tales... one she's never been allowed to read. But these tales aren't filled with "happily ever after"s, and as the search for her missing mother grows more dire, Alice isn't quite sure if she's going to find one for herself, either.

This novel is a much-hyped recent release that I was incredibly pleased to find not only lived up to the amount of positive reviews surrounding it, but exceeded it beyond my wildest expectations. It had some big shoes to fill, too: I read it right on the tails of The Cruel Prince, and was uncertain about reading two YA releases involving strong fantasy elements back to back. However, not only were they both different, but they were each made stronger by what made them different.

The Hazel Wood is dark... and I don't just mean that in a YA way, but in a literature-in-general kind of way. It carries a body count... brutality and bloodshed abound, even when packed within the confines of a fantasy-style atmosphere, and packaged with a teen female protagonist. Cruel Prince boasts a different kind of brutality, one colored by the bright and shiny wrappings of high fantasy and faerie courts, but Alice lives in New York, works at a cafe, and hates her high school. The drama comes from watching her real-world outlook cope with the introduction of deadly raven-calling nightmare women, disappearing books and reappearing trouble, and a forest in the middle of New York whose trees know more than they should.

The plot twists were shocking and sudden, and I loved them. Some were nearly gasp-worthy with their bloodshed or horror, while others brought about hope or clarity in such a stunning way that it actually made me smile. This book continued to surprise me at every corner, which is something I didn't think the YA fantasy genre could pull on me any more.

[It actually reminded me a lot - A LOT - of John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things, not only for its focus on traditionalist (ie, Not Disney-fied, very much violent and unrepentant) plots of original fairy tales, but for how deeply woven the intersections of the fantasy world and the real world swirled together. There are so many similarities between the two reads, I feel completely confident in recommending each to fans of the other.]

Not only is the writing a little more on the intense side, but the writing style operates at a higher level of YA, as well: compelling syntax and sentence flow, a high level of diction, and well-constructed and paced metaphorical content, spell this book out as being written by someone who is just plain good at writing! To be honest, I think the gorgeously wrought descriptions are the backbone of the narrative itself: Melissa Albert clearly knows how to make things sound elegant and interesting. The metaphorical descriptions alone deserve some kind of medal, because there were frequent uses of simile that made me reread segments over and over in order to appreciate it more fully, like I used to feel when I read Scott Westerfield's So Yesterday as a kid.

The Goodreads profile for this book marks it as being the first in a series, and I'm not entirely sure how confident I am in that decision. This story would have been absolutely beautiful as a standalone, but due to how deeply I fell in love with Albert's writing style and compelling characters, I trust her to make that decision, and I look forward to reading more of her writing in the future.

Final Verdict: Dark, brutal, and expertly written, The Hazel Wood is a definite recommendation for those who like their fantasy a little more on the twisted side, like John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things or Seanan McGuire's Every Heart a Doorway. Don't be put off by the contemporary setting; the book is at its best when paying homage to the horror born from original folklore tradition. The best fairy tales were always warnings, after all.

What's your favorite YA release of the past year? Do you like books that come with their own fictional source material? Let me know, in the comments below!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

New Haul: Spring Book Outlet Order

I've never been someone who takes great stock in sponsored videos, no matter how much I like the YouTubers doing the promoting. The fact that I actually followed through the link and made it all the way to Book Outlet was a feat in itself... and that I not only found plenty of cool books I've been looking for, enough to satisfy the $35 minimum purchase to qualify for free shipping on my order, was quite another!

I used to think that Book Outlet was something akin to a dream come true - I mean, all of those great titles, for around $6 or under? Come on - to the point where I didn't think I should actually order from it. We've all been burned by Amazon before when it comes to purchasing secondhand or lower-priced, non-retailer books, so I kind of assumed that ordering from an outlet retailer would be more like that.

Thankfully, they proved me wrong in abundance, and I was able to pick up six new titles - plus one gift for a sister! - for around $35. 

While some of them might have a little wear and tear around the jacket, or a surplus Sharpie marking across the top and fore edges, they are almost completely new, to the point where one of my siblings picked one up and, gently stroking its pages apart, whispered, "The spines haven't even been opened yet!" And if their condition and pricing can inspire that much awe in a high schooler, then you know for sure it's legit.

But enough about #deals. Here are the books I decided were worth a last-ditch, pre-vacation book order!

A Conjuring of Light (Shades of Magic #3), V. E. Schwab
I've read the first in the series, and already own the second, but couldn't resist the pull when I saw the third was available in paperback for such a low price. This is one of those series I wish I had bought in hardcover exclusively as they came out, so I'm happy to get even a third of the trilogy in this kind of condition. Schwab's enrapturing intermeshing fantasy worlds of drab Grey London, vibrant Red London, bleak White London, and collapsed Black London, grabbed me immediately, and are one of the reasons I started collecting her work in the first place, so I'm excited to finish the trilogy soon.

Wink Poppy Midnight, April Genevieve Tucholke
I've been on the lookout for Tucholke's works since I raved about a short story collection she edited  late last year (but more on that later... tee hee hee). I had this YA mystery novel in my sights since it first came out, but it never generated enough hype to really guarantee my full attention. However, now that I know what the author is capable of, that deliberately abstract blurb on its inner flap has really caught my eye for Spring!

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin
Who doesn't wish they could quit their day job, and become a writer full time? Or, in my case, who wishes they could have a job at all, and would love for it to be that of an actual writer? In this collection of personal testimonies from writers like Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, and Nick Hornby, the details of what it means to be a working author in the modern world are laid out in as objective a means as possible, to see how art interacts with commerce in publishing, and its paychecks.

A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, Stacy Schiff
I - like the lucky many related to those with ample disposable income and an incurable penchant for live musical theater - got the chance to see Hamilton in Feburary with my family. While I love the musical itself, my one critique of it, is its exclusion of one of my absolute favorite founding fathers: Benjamin Franklin. True, he was in France for quite a bit of the time, but it's not like we don't know what he was doing there... and that's why we have veteran historian Stacy Schiff on the case.

Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths, Philip Freeman
Surprisingly, out of all of the books I got through this order, this title is the only one I can really see reading soon in my foreseeable future... at least, according to my most recent Top Ten Tuesday! What can I say, sometimes you really just feel like doing a deep-dive back into Greek mythology, and it's the kind of feeling you have to just roll with, because who knows when you're going to experience it again?

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
I've been a big Stardust fan for a while, but I only really developed an obsession with Gaiman after I powered through American Gods two summers ago, then became infatuated with the Starz adaptation of the novel this past Fall. I figured that it was just about time to branch into some of his other works, so what better place to start, than another title with a TV accompaniment? 

Slasher Girls and Monster Boys, edited by April Genevieve Tucholke
Remember that comment I made about a rave review for Tucholke earlier? Yeah, that was for this short story collection, involving new twisted YA horror vignettes inspired by genre classics. At the time of my original excitement, my younger sister sent me a frantic "Get me that book!" text, but alas, as it was a library rental, I didn't quite feel comfortable shipping it off to the UDistrict of Seattle with her. Which is why I jumped at the chance to buy her her own copy, of course! With the fervent hopes that she'll be willing to share again come October, obviously. 

Well, that's my Spring Book Haul, courtesy of Book Outlet! Admittedly, I have bought other reading material since placing this order - like Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land - among other non-reading things, too, like a new stack of embroidery hoops, and a calligraphy nib set and gold ink for my cousin's bridal shower invites, which are sure to occupy my time as well. Still, with this kind of influx of hot new stuff into my shelves, I'm pretty sure I'll be finding plenty of reading time in my schedule soon enough.

What's new in your Spring TBR? See any good bookish sales lately? Which of these new titles should I pack on vacation? Let me know, in the comments below! 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on my Spring TBR

"Top Ten Tuesday" is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by The Artsy Reader Girl!
The cloudy Washington skies are starting to clear up for an afternoon at a time, the flowers that we planted in good faith in the fall are finally pulling through on their promises and brightening up our front yard, and Instagrams from younger collegiate friends still spending their breaks in Cabo mean that Spring has totally arrived!

With that comes daydreams of new gauzy Easter dresses, breaking out old and battered Saltwater sandals, mixing up pitchers full of lemonade, and blessing my skin with moderate amounts of Vitamin D... and, of course, my now-annual Spring sojourn to my favorite place in the whole world, Sunriver, Oregon, tagging along with my younger siblings on their Breaks, too.

Which, of course, means plenty of reading time is opening up in front of me (despite the fact that my writing has never kept me this busy, either). When it comes to selections for my Spring TBR, I'm getting pretty varied... and I wouldn't have it any other way!

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1. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
A classic I've reread many times since my first venture in high school, but haven't touched in the past few years, I first entertained the idea of trying on this powerful work after reading All the Lives I Want, by Alana Massey, last year. In her essay, "Recovering Sylvia," one of the collection's most powerful, she examines Plath as a figure of literary study and pop culture fixation, and it really resonated with me, so I've been dying to give it another go.

2. The Magician's Land (The Magicians #3), Lev Grossman
I finished the first book last February, and the second this past Feburary, and now I'm just excited to take on the third so I can not only round out the series, but give myself full permission to become obsessed with the SyFy adaptation. 

3. Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths, Philip Freeman
I don't know whether it's the deep-dive obsession I did into the Cast Soundtrack for off-Broadway's Hadestown musical last Fall (which tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice), or just the fact that I've been feeling the urge to read up on something really classic lately, but this collection has really been calling to me. I tried to read it last Spring Break as a library impulse pick, but never got around to it... now that it was a part of my most recent Book Outlet haul, I'm more tempted to commit!

4. Bloom: Navigating Life and Style, Estee Lalonde
I've been saving this pastel-hued package from one of my favorite YouTubers for a while now, but was looking for the right moment to read. Her familiar voice and expert sense of style imbues this half-memoir-half-guide to living a life of confidence and authenticity. At least, that's what the reviews say. I, of course, have not read it yet, despite having owned it for over a year (Oops!).

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5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling
As a part of my ongoing quest to reread all of the Harry Potter novels in 2018, I've got these two lined up fresh for reading this Spring! I mean, yes, technically I'm reading the third right now... but that's because I have to hurry it up, so my brother can read it after me.

6. Ordinary People, Judith Guest
The most recent selection on our Sigma Kappa Sorority National Book Club Reading List! Sure, I have absolutely no idea what this book is about, but at least I can rest easy knowing I'm probably not the only one going in blind. It worked out well with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, didn't it?

7. A Series of Unfortunate Events #5 - 8, Lemony Snicket
Like with the Harry Potter series, I'm rereading these with my brother, and like with the Magicians series, I'm reading them so that I can watch an excellent television show without any guilt. The new season is coming out on Netflix on March 30th, and I am not prepared!

8. The Power, Naomi Alderman
I kid you not: I've got quite a bit of history with my local library, and I'm not a stranger to their rentals system. But what I am a stranger to, is joining a hold line for a book that has seven copies available, and over 17 people in front of me. Yeah, you heard right. Now I've finally got my hands on it, and there's already a line of 13 behind me, so no chances at renewing here.

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9. my WWII-era Nancy Drews, Carolyn Keene
So I listened to the podcast Into the Twilight, and immediately reread the first Twilight novel (and watched the movie, and held a discussion with my family, etc). Now that I've started listening to the funny and conversational Get a Clue, Nancy Drew, I'm not only ready to reread some of my favorites, but I really want to read them in as close to their original state as possible... and there's nothing that screams authenticity like a frontispiece that tells you all about paper rationing.

10. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***, Mark Manson
As it appears, I'm a sucker for self-help books whose titles run completely counterpoint to the way I was raised and presently conduct my life: I just finished The Art of Non-Conforming, by Chris Guillebeau, and really enjoyed it! This one, though, is propped up by my Dad's praise, too, and I'm looking forward to discussing its merits with him. And, you know, not giving a f***.

What's on your Top Ten? Let me know, in the comments below!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)

I've never been a huge fan of "faerie" books, and in fact, avoided them for the most part as a teen. Now, they have gone through a sort of renaissance in the YA readership - with S J Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses series serving as a particular point in the journey - and while I'm happy to try out some of the newer and buzzier titles, they're not something I take particular stock in as a genre. 

After a significant amount of disappointment experienced when reading the much-hyped An Enchantment of Ravens, I wasn't feeling particularly interested. However, another book came out at the same time, from an author I trust to write compelling and non-cliched "faerie" tales: Holly Black.

The Cruel Prince - the premiere title in the forthcoming "The Folk of the Air" series, by NYT Best-selling Author Holly Black - follows the story of a young woman named Jude, who, along with her two sisters, was kidnapped and forced into the world of the Fae as a child. Contending daily with a society that resents her humanity and finds her unworthy, she is determined to find her own fate in their midst, no matter the cost. However, when it comes to spying for one of the Court's menacing princes on the eve of  a Coronation, she might give up more than she bargained for... but she could gain more than she ever thought possible.

Here's why I was so confident going in that I was going to like this book: I love Holly Black. I was a fan of her work as a kid, reading the Spiderwick Chronicles in the school library, and was pleasantly surprised in college, when I read The Darkest Part of the Forest, to find that I still loved her voice. When I heard she was coming out with a new novel - especially with one that has a cover as beautiful as The Cruel Prince - I decided to read it, despite my misgivings about the faerie genre on the whole.

Spoiler alert: It was so good. So good. And I'm so excited for the rest of the series.

Every once in a while you check out a book from the library, read it, and then are overcome with a sudden sense of remorse that you hadn't bought it for yourself, instead. That's this book. In fact, I haven't completely ruled out purchasing it yet entirely, because apparently the Barnes and Noble edition has an extra short story in it.

The main characters to the plot were dynamic and interesting, without sacrificing their relatable nature or plausibility. Even negative or harmful actions still had empathetic origins. The faerie characters were not written with the tropes of their mythology strictly for the sake of maintaining it: their tendencies toward brutality and cruelty were explained, and never taken for granted. When killed, their destruction was made more violent and shocking by the fact that they were immortal, and not less.

And it's not like some of the other paranormal-contemporary-romance books found in the YA category that rely on secret civilizations of fantasy creatures, where you could easily swap them out for a different creature and the story would still make sense, like replacing vampires with werewolves with mermaids, etc. The Cruel Prince's plot and characterizations are very much rooted in the idea of the fae, and the knowledge of parts of their folkloric background.

The plotline was one I don't think we've seen taken on quite as successfully in YA: while there's no shortage of orphans in the genre, I can't think of many where the teen actively works to not only remain in the world of their parent's murderer, but acts specifically to seek their approval and status within the civilization. There are layers to the status of Jude and Taryn (her sister) as outsiders, and the various parts they are asked to play in their otherworldly surroundings, and one of the key ones is that they want to stay, by their own individual means.

And of course, they also include some characters from The Darkest Part of the Forest in a brief set of cameos, which I was overjoyed to see.

Final Verdict: It doesn't surprise me at all that as soon as I turned this book back into the library, there were several ready in the hold line to take it. The hype is well-matched with the follow through.

Are there any YA genres that make you wary? Are you a fan of Holly Black? Let me know, in the comments below!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I originally started reading this book because it had been chosen by my national sorority organization as a book club pick.... for the month of January. 

The idea that Sigma Kappas all over the world would be reading this book at the same time as me made it an alluring choice, which is probably why there were holds placed on it so heavily at my local library, that I wasn't able to pick it up until long after everyone else had finished reading it, on February 1st. Darn it!

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, starts out with an assertion that is quickly proven to be anything but true. Eleanor Oliphant has been at the same desk job since she was 21, but does not feel the need to interact with her peers or move upwards on the company ladder at all. She abides by a strict schedule, which includes thrifty and solitary lunches, drinking vodka alone on weekends, and dreading the Wednesday night contact from her distant and controlling mother. And Eleanor would be more than content to lead that life for a long time... until an unexpected encounter involving a man from work, and an elderly man collapsing on a crosswalk, shows that life can be just as fine when lived with other people.

Enrapturing and enigmatic, I adored this book, despite not having any sort of anticipation of enjoying it built up beforehand. It's not that I don't like books chosen for me by other people, it's that I don't have exactly high estimations of book club books, especially when they're titles I've never heard of before, and doubly so when the blurb for it gives no hints as to what kind of story lies inside. In my opinion, neither the cover excerpts nor the front cover illustrations itself are all that indicative of the actual plot... the UK version does fare a little better, but I honestly don't believe you know what you're getting into until you read the first few pages. 

To be clear from the start, this rating is a high-ranking four, that is almost a five, because while I truly enjoyed this book and really found it enrapturing not just for its sense of mystery, but also the sense of empathy the narrative was able to elicit, it was just a little hard for me to read sometimes. That's probably why it took me a little over a week to finish reading it, even though every time I sat down to read it, I had a great time!

The book is fantastic at maintaining a sense of privacy and internality, while also building suspense and an aura of mystery around the main character... it's not easy to spend the whole narrative in the head of the lead, while still discovering things about her throughout the whole novel! While I think it's a bit of a stereotype for English majors to enjoy reading things with unreliable narrators, there's this unique sense about Eleanor that she's not trying to deliberately hide or obscure anything, it's that there's so much she's not willing to accept. You can maintain empathy and a sense of introversion with the narration, while also understanding that you are limited by Eleanor's own lack of understanding.

It's that kind of balance between self-effacing objectivity - from the somewhat silly, like how our main character doesn't know what Spongebob Squarepants or a bikini wax is, to greater patterns of not understanding most normal cues of social interaction - and a deep sense of personal incomprehension that perform a delicate balancing act in keeping the narrative going. Eleanor doesn't know much about the world, but she doesn't know much about herself either, despite carrying on with a self-assured confidence that can't help but serve as an ironic point of humor.

In some ways, that's what made the book difficult to read. Reading people make inappropriate comments or behave improperly in social situations is always a turn-off for me... it's one of the reasons why I hated my family's fixation with The Office when I was younger: that kind of humor just isn't funny. It's painful. However, it wasn't just that it was supposed to be funny that Eleanor found herself in these kinds of situations... it was to demonstrate a significant point of discrepancy between Eleanor's ability to operate as a person in the world, against her perceived ability to occupy it.

The novel deals with depression and PTSD in a frank and open way that I think is not only highly commendable, but incredibly well-informed. The depictions of casual alcoholism hit uncomfortably close for someone who also has a strained relationship with drinking. Both brought me to tears more than once, and by the end, got me actively begging out loud for Eleanor to go get some help. It wasn't just because anyone could recognize that she had problems... it was that you really wanted her to get better. You can't help - despite all of her intensely awkward mannerisms - but really love her by the end of the book.

Side note: I was absolutely terrified it was going to turn into a romance - especially due to the book's packaging - and felt absolutely vindicated when it did not. Sorry if that's a spoiler, but if you're someone like me, maybe it will convince you to give this book a chance.

Especially because I almost didn't! Like I mentioned at the start of the review, I think it has a horrendously ugly cover - if you're buying the US edition - and not the most inspiring blurb on the back. That's not the story's fault, though... you really can't get a sense of the book without peeking inside it. (Just like with Eleanor, herself!) Give it a few pages, and then make up your mind. Though I will tell you, I hope you read it.

Final Verdict: An unexpected favorite, with a unique main character and sense of deep emotional connection. If I had to choose two words to describe it, I would say "humorous" and "heroic"... not only is the book quite light-hearted in most places, but its main character is both endearing beyond her foibles, as well as uniquely strong and resilient in her own right.

Have you ever been a part of a book club? What's been a recent unexpected favorite of yours? Let me know, in the comments below!

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Book Quotes (and Some Thoughts About Bookish Tattoos!)

When I was a kid, I loved the idea of getting tattoos, specifically, tattoos of quotes from some of my favorite books. It started with Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland - "And she fell down, and down, and down," which I could easily envision spiraling around my left wrist - and by the time I got to high school, I had a list of maybe twelve or so quotes and literary references that I wanted permanently added to my body.

Basically, since I couldn't crack my rib cage open like a cabinet and stuff books into my chest cavity to carry around with me all the time, I wanted them typed out where I could see them everyday. I wanted to be a living library, with words scrawled out across my skin in ink that I would never have to worry about washing off. Furthermore, I thought this was all a really, really good idea.

Then, once I turned 17 and some of my friends started actually getting tattoos, I realized that there was no way this plan was going to work out in my favor. Between abrasive parental controls that are still in place as a 24 year old, to my only semi-functional fear of needles, and the very legitimate question of financial worthiness, I've decided to forgo the tattoos, for now.

But that doesn't mean my love for those words have gone away, at all. Which is why I was so intrigued by today's Top Ten prompt, "Favorite Book Quotes." A worthy category, to be sure, which is why it took me several days to narrow down to some of my favorites. Whether it's for an Instagram caption or a tattoo of your own, I hope you take inspiration in some of my faves!

1."If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more." from Emma, Jane Austen
Out of all of the quotes on this list, this is the one I reference the most frequently in daily life, mainly because I think the idea of being too emotionally overwhelmed by love to speak about it eloquently is a pretty relatable concept.

2. The "Cool Girl" monologue from Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Obviously I can't transcribe the whole thing here, but it's more than worth a quick Google search and a few minutes' reading. If I was anywhere near as stagelight-oriented as I was when I was much younger, this would be my audition monologue.

3.“The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what's in between.” from The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
There are a litany of reasons I love The Phantom Tollbooth, the virtues of which I have extolled on the blog for many a post, but one of the best parts of the novel is its universality. The book is relatable across age, background, decade, and more, and the lessons contained within are, as well. This one, delivered by the Princesses Rhyme and Reason, is one of the best. 

4.“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! -- When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” from Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
This might be a silly choice, but it's one of my favorites particularly because of how frequently it's misquoted or misinterpreted. In the context of the book, the character speaking these lines is Miss Caroline Bingley, and she's doing it strictly to impress Mr. Darcy, and not at all in an earnest reflection of the importance of books, being that she abandons her reading material shortly thereafter. Still, you can find it on plenty a bookmark and tote bag! (I, myself, have a different quote from the same material elsewhere: "What are men compared to rocks and mountains," on a sticker on top of my journal.) 

5."Ah, if only he could die temporarily!" from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain 
Thus setting in motion one of the greatest sequences in children's fiction, as Tom does just that. Like The Phantom Tollbooth, I've spoken on my lifelong obsession with Tom Sawyer on the blog before, so it only makes sense that a quote would make the list of potential tattoos.

6.“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” from Frankenstein, Mary Shelley 
You don't see this quote many places, which is a shame, because it's a great one. I read Frankenstein for the first time when I was15, and have returned to it regularly ever since, easily becoming one of my favorite great works of literature. While I'd have to grow into the idea a little bit - as is probably obvious, I am not fearless by any stretch - having it as a tattoo would probably help prompt me to do so. 

7. Okay, so I don't know the exact wording of it, I can't track it down anywhere, and I don't know where my copy's gotten off to, but there's this one quote in Scott Westerfeld's So Yesterday, where he says something stands out "like a black spider on a slice of Wonderbread." Or something... like I said, I can't be sure. All I know, is that it stood out to me the first time I read it, and is one of my favorite parts of the book. (Besides, how cute would a little doodle of a piece of bread with a spider on the middle of it be as a tattoo?)

8."[W]e have some history together that hasn't happened yet." from A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
The postmodern perfection of this book helped define my collegiate career, and cemented Egan as one of my forever favorite and auto-buy authors. Like the first quote on this list, the feeling is relatable: when you meet someone for the first time, and immediately recognize that they'll have significance in your own life.

9."Maybe feeling like an empty room is what inspires you to fill it." from Everyone's an Aliebn When You're an Aliebn Too, Jomny Sun 
The most recent release on this list, and not even something found within the contents of the graphic novel itself, but instead, within its endpages. When I read it for the first time, I gasped out loud, because it was such a simple, but still moving, statement of hope.

10.“We all create stories to protect ourselves.” from House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
This book is one of those that you'll never understand the hype for, until you really set about trying to read the novel. Well, more like deconstruct. The best way I can explain it, is that the book is filled with secrets, and you really need to set aside a month to puzzle it out... if you even actually manage to escape the labyrinth yourself. This quote is one that resonated with me, but there are plenty more where that came from: the dedication in the book simply reads, "This is not for you," and I can't think of a more supremely kick-butt nerd tattoo than that.

What's in your Top Ten? Do you have any bookish tattoos? Let me know, in the comments below!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

My Year with Harry: Rereading Chamber of Secrets

My new year started off with a bang - not unlike the ones heard during a game of Exploding Snap in the Gryffindor common room - when I decided to make it one of my 2018 resolutions to reread every book in the Harry Potter series. After a very successful return to the first novel, I took a brief reading break before embarking on the second in the series, and was surprised to find that I enjoyed it even more than the first one... and even made a party out of finishing it! 

personal history

Published on July 2nd, 1998, and with a movie adaptation that premiered on November 14th, 2002, the second novel in the Harry Potter series has never exactly been one of my faves. With a fairly dark plot, uncomfortable social dynamics for Harry, and its status as a sophomore effort, I was never drawn to it over the more alluring installments within the collection.

This probably says a lot about me as a kid - and as an adult - but I used to get incredibly anxious reading this book, especially with how quickly everyone would turn on Harry once things started to connect him to the legend of the Heir of Slytherin. The idea that a school full of people who had been so excited to get to know him only a short time before, would openly shun and be afraid of him such a short time after, was disconcerting to me. Maybe it's a symptom of being an older child, or someone who was bullied when they were younger, but being publicly shamed and blamed for something I had no hand in and did not do, and having people hate me for it, was absolutely one of my biggest fears.

And for those who've visited Universal Studios Hollywood in recent years, one of my least favorite sequences from the "Unexpected Journey" ride - aka, the part of it we got stuck in front of for at least two minutes in the dark - also comes from this book (And for those who haven't been subjected to the experience, I'll give you a hint: it involves characters with more than two legs).

So, in a nutshell, I didn't exactly enter into this rereading with the highest hopes.

the reread

In fact, I loved this book a whole lot more than I did as a kid. I believe this was mainly due to my ability to reread it not just as an adult, but someone who's been able to watch how the rest of the series plays out: not only does Harry's second book include a lot of the classic Potter elements that made the books a phenomenon, continuing to successfully build out the world and occupy it with intriguing and unexpected characters, but it lays significant groundwork for other important plot pieces that come along in later books. 

This deliberate sewing of seeds for what would be integral to later installments - including the ideas of parts of Voldemort being present in Harry, and the Death Eaters' possession of the Dark Lord's belongings - was done so masterfully, that spotting various forms of it throughout the book almost felt like ferreting out Easter eggs. Even other intra-novel plot devices, like Ron's broken wand, are constructed so confidently, the whole thing is practically a masterclass in foreshadowing. 

Some of the other parts of the novel I loved:
  • How quickly passages and quotes I hadn't read in years could spark debates between family members. Discussing everything from why Percy wasn't in Slytherin, to whether Harry and Ginny's status as imprints and conduits for Voldemort's power were part of why they ended up together, abounded across frantically-typed texts. These kinds of discussions are absolutely a testament to the staying power of the world Rowling created with this series. 
  • The discovery that Gilderoy Lockhart was a Ravenclaw... but then again, so was Quirinus Quirrell! My brother and I launched deep into the Hogwarts back-history available online to figure out which houses each of the Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers belonged to, and I was surprised - but not shocked - that these two belonged to mine. 
  • Like I mentioned before, the book contains many classic themes, but also happens to be very deliberately scary. From parties with ghosts and rotting food, to hearing a voice no one else can talking about murdering children, and then having the actual bodies start piling up (though only petrified), is very intense for young readers. Particularly due to the middle-grade-esque writing style of the first two books, this seemed notable, just because it's a little difficult to match a voice selected for young readers, with so many dark elements. 
  • Before embarking upon this reread, I definitely remembered Quidditch as being a fundamental aspect of Hogwarts life, but didn't recall it factoring in quite as heavily as it actually does. Funny how one of the nerdiest book series in the history of fandom, centers around an unabashed jock! 

favorite quotes

“What exactly is the function of a rubber duck?” 

“Do you think we should go and ask Hagrid about it all?”
“That’d be a cheerful visit,” said Ron, “ ‘Hello, Hagrid. Tell us, have you been setting anything mad and hairy loose in the castle lately?”

What does she understand?” said Harry distractedly, still looking around, trying to tell where the voice had come from.
“Loads more than I do,” said Ron, shaking his head.
“But why’s she got to go to the library?”
“Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.” 

the party! (part one)

When I originally commenced with rereading this latest Harry Potter novel, I asked my younger brother - who is undertaking the challenge at the same time as me - if he felt like re-watching all of the movies, as well. Together, we decided to have a little fun with finishing the first two books, by having a Potter Party double feature of the first two movies (while the rest of the family was otherwise occupied, because we're not that annoying). 

We picked up Flying Cauldron Butterscotch Beer from local standby store Crescent Moon, and dug out the Chocolate Frogs we'd purchased in Universal Studios Hollywood late last August. We also made a feast of our own, with main meals of Beef Pot Pie and a green salad, to go with Deviled Dragon's Eggs, Cauldron Cakes, and Pumpkin Pasties (with a vegan batch whipped up for our sister Maddie to enjoy, too!). 

The spread was grand, and even our parents said that they were impressed with the lengths we'd gone through for the celebration. I think for our next, when we finish up the third and fourth books, we'll let them join us. (Maybe.) I've already got a few recipes and craft ideas lined up, and I can't wait to get reading again! 

the end

 Like I said before, this was a genuinely enjoyable reread that actually surprised me, something I didn't think was possible with a series I've been reading and rereading for most of my life. I can't wait to get out of the middle grade reading style of these early novels, but it's still fun to revisit the early installments.

How are your own reading resolutions coming along? What do you think of the first two Harry Potter movies? Do you have any great wizarding world recipes you think I should try? Let me know, in the comments below!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review: The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic

Science was never my favorite subject in school: too many numbers, and way too many safety warnings to ever be much fun. However, I've always enjoyed reading about science... especially when it's presented in a format like this! 

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, is a comprehensive look at the Broad Street cholera epidemic, one of the most intense and deadly diseases to sweep London. The story of where the epidemic originated, and how the impact of its mapping and documentation changed not just what we know now about the disease, but modern day city management, provides a complex and intensive look at how civilization puts its civilians at risk, especially for the poor and poor of hygiene of the 1800s.

If you asked me to write a sentence about the outcome of reading this book, it would be this: I now know more than I ever thought I would about mid-1800s waste disposal, epidemic mapping, and the biological effects of one of history's deadliest diseases.

The disease is already notable in the historical and medical fields - it literally decimated an entire London district during its developmental stages, killing one in ten people on the block - but also in the sociocultural sphere, as this book clearly demonstrates, as it helped revolutionize not just the ways we cope with widespread sickness, but the ways city infrastructure bolsters and protects their high populations. This outcome is only possible, due to the significant amount of data afforded by the extensive notes and documentation taken during the time period, which in itself was a remarkable achievement, and a testament to those in the field at the time a routine sickness was wrenching apart an entire neighborhood.

The deliberately story-centered narrative turned noted anesthesiologist and physician John Snow and his friend and fellow documenter, Henry Whitehead, into a sort of dynamic Holmes-and-Watson type duo. By charting their previously separate investigations, and exploring their original odds against each other - which eventually grew into a lifelong friendship - the book finds two compelling protagonists to face off against the formidable enemy disease.

The act of focusing the plot line - the spread of the disease - through the narrative design of charting the investigations by both Snow and Whitehead, not only does what is primarily a statistical account gain a sense of individuality and character, but also provides a better source of clarity for understanding the actual scope of those affected. Whereas the victims of these epidemics might be reduced to numbers and marks on a map, by displaying their relationship with Whitehead and Snow, they are shown to be fully-fleshed and complex people... a fate not granted when simply analyzing the disease for numerical data and quantifiable severity.

If I do have a primary criticism of the book, it is that the story went a little awry during the final chapter: "Broad Street Revisited," where our author discusses today's modern cities and the terrors that plague them, such as terrorist attacks and modern mutations of the flu. While I do agree it was necessary to help shape what such a disease would look like in a more contemporary setting, in terms of contextualizing what happened and centering the narrative around the importance of urbanization in the past century, the way it was constructed came off as a sort of almost fear-mongering, or a doomsday prediction.

All in all, however, The Ghost Map is one of the more interesting science non-fiction books I've ever read, and written in a style that is exceptionally engaging and keeps the plot moving along at a bright clip, explaining advanced biology, epidemiology, and even sociology in an accessible way, without ever letting it bog down the story. Though the genres are a little different, fans of Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, which also features a deadly killer in a 1800s city setting, might also enjoy this book.

Final Verdict: Accessible and interesting, while covering a complex and comprehensive host of topics, The Ghost Map is a detailed and data-backed exploration of a deadly epidemic and those who not only helped put an end to it, but successfully changed the realm of science for the better. 

What's your favorite science nonfiction read? What kind of science would you like to read more about? Let me know, in the comments below!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Tastee-Reads Cookbook Recommendations: Cravings, Real Food Real Simple, Rise & Shine

Anyone else just really love reading through cookbooks? Maybe it's from spending all my formative years getting under my mom's feet in the kitchen, but there's nothing quite as meditative and relaxing as cracking open an old cookbook, and finding something new inside.

While I don't get the chance to purchase new cookbooks often, something I really love doing is checking them out of the library. When my own culinary collection gets a little too recognizable for my liking, getting cookbooks from the library helps me break out of my rut, find new food ideas, and experiment in the kitchen. Don't get me wrong, I love Pinterest for planning out great menu ideas or paring down exactly how long carrots need to roast in the oven... but there's nothing like carefully turning the pages of a hefty cooking tome to really get you in the mind to create.

That's why I started reviewing cookbooks on the blog before, in the hopes that others like me might find a little inspiration in these choices, as well, and maybe try out a few new recipes of their own. Three cheers for the local library!

Cravings: Recipes for All the Food You Want to Eat, Chrissy Teigen

I didn't originally get the hype about Chrissy Teigen, but after following her on Twitter, I quickly realized that this model mama and wife of crooner John Legend was just as hilarious as she is gorgeous. Now, after reading this cookbook, I understand that I have to add another credit to Chrissy's name: she certainly knows how to make cooking entertaining.

Her sense of humor glows throughout this collection of her favorite snacks, treats, sweets, and more, for any time of day, and her signature candor and eye for aesthetics make sure that the unique recipes have just as much story and style as they have substance. With menus that reference a wide range of cooking styles and genres, and ingredients lists that remain accessible while still stretching outside typical culinary comfort zones, this pick is perfect for those looking to up their gourmand game, without straying too far from the box (or their bank account).

However, what you might want to mind is the belt: Chrissy is upfront about the food's sometimes not-so-healthy status... the book is called Cravings, after all, and no one has a craving for iceberg lettuce.

29939404Real Food, Real Simple: 80 Delicious Paleo-Friendly, Gluten-Free Recipes in 5 Steps or Less, Taylor Riggs, RDN

At the start of the new year, I - like many - set the intention to start eating better food in my life. That doesn't necessarily mean going vegan, but it does mean incorporating more fresh produce, and less processed food. When I saw this book was recommended by one of my favorite bloggers, I immediately placed a hold at the library.

When this book promises less steps, they mean it: the recipes included in this involve less instructions, less ingredients, and less clean-up. However, they lean so far in the direction of minimalism, they almost seem to skimp out on one of the reasons I enjoy eating food in the first place: flavor.

While I'm sure the austere edibles included in this pristine and brief selection are perfect for those of us looking to significantly reduce their meat and dairy intake, they're just not to my particular taste. However, if you're interested in an easy-start entrance to plant-based eating, this might be just the selection for you!

27876518Rise and Shine: Better Breakfasts for Easy Mornings, Katie Sutherland Morford

Breakfast is hands-down my favorite meal, but something I rarely get to take my time with on a regular basis. Rise and Shine brings together some of the favorite morning meals of cookbook author and nutritionist Morford, and her three daughters, for a unique and comprehensive take on delicious - but still quick - ways to start the day.

With chapters divided by categories like "Eggs," "Toast," "Pancakes," and more, there are plenty of offerings for whatever flavor craving you have, and whatever your choice is, they're sure to be short on ingredients, but long on flavor (as the longest lists I could find were only about nine!).

With plenty of out-of-the-box ideas, from savory morning fried rice, cottage cheese and radish toast, and even pimento and cheddar egg pie, to the sweetness of breakfast baked apples, ginger apricot granola, and applesauce molasses donuts, your morning meals are set for the week. Along with plenty of tips and tricks on what to prepare ahead of time, and how to make the best use of those precious AM hours, this collection is sure to infuse your mornings with a little more sunshine.

Do you like reading cookbooks? Which of these books would you want to check out of your local library? Let me know, in the comments below!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Review: Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life

34220606Exciting news: guess who's going to see Hamilton in Seattle this Thursday??? 

Let's just say it's put me in a political state of mind... so I'm throwing it back to review a book I originally read about a month ago, about politically-adjacent sisters who grew up in front of a nation. From playing on the carpet floors of the White House to giving the young Obama sisters a tour upon their father's election, Jenna and Barbara have spent plenty of time around some of the country's greatest influencers of  the millennium's first decade... not necessarily in "The Room Where It Happens," but still, pretty close! 

In Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life, Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush - aka, the Bush twins, daughters of President #43 and granddaughters to #41 - give their own account of what it was like, living behind the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and in front of the eyes of a nation. From their presence on election tours with their grandfather, to treading unsteady ground during their education on liberal college campuses, their reflections on everything from a childhood spent in matching outfits, to having youthful indiscretions documented on a global scale, paint a portrait of a sisterhood closely held, and a family legacy they had to grow to understand. 

When they called this book "Sisters First," they weren't kidding: even in the acknowledgements section, they clarify that this book was not necessarily a memoir, but instead, love stories they told to each other, and I believe it. Every page of this book is filled to the brim with adoration, something that's easy for me to understand, having two younger sisters (and a little brother!) of my own.

Naturally, the bond between these two is a little more important, being that their sisterhood played into the cultural history surrounding one of the most impactful positions in our national governance. As the granddaughters of George H. W. Bush, and daughters George W. Bush, their lives have reflected a unique perspective on growing up in not just the public eye, but the epicenter of national and worldwide politics, and it makes sense that they'd want to share that with others... especially when the perspectives that have been shared about them before have been less than kind.

Which, it may surprise you, I did not go into this book knowing! President Obama was elected into office when I was only in the eighth grade, which meant that my political consciousness hadn't been developed all that much during the time Jenna and Barbara's dad was in office. Hearing their tepid acknowledgements of tabloid-documented discretions of years past was a little disconcerting, when I wasn't all that familiar with what they had been doing wrong in the first place.

Still, despite the fact that their college years were less than straight-laced, it is clear that these women are intelligent and well-educated. Their story-telling is descriptive and packed with emotion, and punctuated with letters, emails, and other missives flying between members of their famous family to give it credence. I absolutely believe that these women love each other, and their family.

For the record, I am a Democrat, and a liberal, and all of those other things that don't necessarily align with the Bush family doctrine. However, that didn't stop me at all from enjoying this book. Not only did the sisters put forth their stories with apology, and without judgement, but they acknowledged the places where their lines of thinking, as they grew up, deviated from those of their parents, whether in terms of supporting gay marriage, being pro-choice, or mediating a more friendly relationship with news media. They discussed their friendship with the Obama family. They also made it clear that their support of their own family ran far deeper than any political divide, too.

While I do think the chapters had the tendency to get a little wandering and disorganized, the book's relative lack of structure made it feel very conversational, like they were just telling you these stories over a morning cup of coffee.

Final Verdict: A fun and unique installment in the various political memoirs I've been getting into in the past few years. If you liked Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Obama-era White House official Alyssa Mastromonaco, you would probably like this one, too, for their unique portraits of a presidential term, behind the scenes.

Have you read any great political memoirs recently? Do you also have the song from "My Date with the President's Daughter" stuck in your head? Let me know, in the comments below!

Friday, January 26, 2018

Portland Trip and End-of-the-Year Book Haul

Nothing like a calm Friday morning to reflect on the past week... or in my case, the past couple of weeks! I was scrolling through my iPhone camera roll a few days ago, and stumbled across stacks of pictures from my family's end-of-the-year vacation to Portland, Oregon, from the last few days of 2017. On this trip, not only did I get to partake in some of my favorite activities with my family - like hitting up our hot spots of the Portland brunch scene - but we also took in one of the coolest art museums exhibits I've ever seen, and, of course, stop by a certain bookish mecca in the middle of the city.

So I figured, why not share some of the special snapshots from this vacation with you?

We like to take a short, local trip right after Christmas, as a means of sort of shaking out of the holidays, and getting ready to start the new year. While Portland was our choice to primarily introduce the family to the intended college campus of my youngest sister, Maddie, for undergrad next year - and to really give her a good feel, it was raining the whole time! - we also know that there's no short of fun things to do down there. Like eat!

Mother's Bistro had a welcoming atmosphere, an amazing menu, and a line out the door. Jam packed with home-recipe-inspired, yet still uniquely delicious options - the salmon hash, pictured on the right, was an absolute standout! - this spot was probably my favorite. However, Brix Tavern is an old favorite for brunch standbys, too, in a cool, trendy location, with unique shopping opportunities nearby. Of course we made time for non-brunch faves, like stopping into the Deschutes Brewery for dinner.

But once you've had brunch, then where do you go? Well, a couple of weeks before our trip, an ad had popped up on my Instagram that immediately sent me sprinting into the other room to tell my Mom. Laika Entertainment - one of our family's favorite animation studios - had their traveling exhibit installed at the Portland Art Museum... which meant, of course, I was looking forward to it for most of December.

And so, apparently, had other people: the line to get into the museum practically kept us waiting in the rain! "Animating Life: The Art, Science, and Wonder of Laika" had already been open for about two months, but you wouldn't have guessed it from the number of people in attendance. If you're trying to go before the exhibit closes on May 20th, I'd suggest making your plans soon.

But even the number of people could not deter the fun... the exhibit did not disappoint for even a second! The spacious exhibit hall was positively jam-packed with props, costuming, set pieces, and figures, from some of the most innovative stop-motion animated movies of the past decade, including Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Boxtrolls, and my personal fave, Paranorman. We walked out with tons of pictures, of course, but also something fun for me: a copy of The Art and Making of Paranorman by Jed Alger, featuring concept art, pictures, and personal anecdotes from people who worked on the movie.

Of course, my new purchase sat within its shrink-wrapped bonds for a few days, in honor of my 2017 Resolution. After a lot of back-and-forth, I decided that the Resolution still stood, provided that I leave the book alone until the new year... which made for some wistful staring in my hotel room.

But the discussions over my Resolution had originally occurred for a completely different reason, of course, one that was the highlight of our second day: Powell's City of Books!

This Portland wonder is a legend in not only PNW-quirkdom, but also in bookish culture, as it is, quite literally, a city block's worth of buildings in the middle of downtown Portland, packed to the rafters with new and used books. I've mentioned it on the blog before, because it's one of my favorite places in the world... and, of course, because I can never walk away from these excursions without a few (or eight, or nine) new reads in my arms.

I conscripted Maddie to take some pictures of me browsing, in the hopes that at least one of the candids would turn out surprisingly cute and magically flattering, which is why I now have a solid album of photos on my phone with me gazing somewhat bewilderingly in a labyrinth of books.

In the end, I emerged with a stack of new-to-me titles, that were almost all under $10.50 each!

The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World, Chris Guillebeau
Normally I wouldn't consider a book with that kind of title to really be my speed, but after Damon and Jo recommended it in one of their 12 Days of Collabmas videos, I had to at least check it out. Besides, this straight-laced obediency freak really needs as much help with not-conforming as she can get!

Better than Before, Gretchen Rubin
What's a new year's book haul without at least a couple self-help titles? I loved Rubin's The Happiness Project when I read it during my senior year of college - the year of my life that is probably the poster child for trying to make things better  bearable and only making them worse - and I'm willing to give another of her books a go.

The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, James Martin, SJ
Because it's hard to follow Jesus' teachings in real life, but much easier to follow them on Twitter, I happen to fill my feed with tweets from Pope Francis, and this guy, Father James Martin. Compassionate, relatable, and a figurehead of the modern progressive Catholic movement, this New York Times bestselling author is a favorite of mine when in bite-size pieces... let's see what I can learn from a whole book!

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult, Bruce Handy
Despite the fact that this book has been on my Goodreads TBR shelves since a few months before it had even come out, I wasn't actually the one to find this title in the many, many rooms of Powell's... it was my Mom! Nevertheless, I can't wait to read it, as well as see what she thinks once she's read it too.

The Polysyllabic Spree and Shakespeare Wrote for Money, Nick Hornby
Before you ask, NO, I did NOT realize there was a book - Housekeeping Vs. The Dirt - that was supposed to fit in the middle of this series, a collection of Hornby's works as he wrote the "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns for The Believer. And NO, I did not know there is one that follows after (More Baths, Less Talking). The shelf was very confusing, and I panicked!

FICTION (yes, believe it or not, this is all of the fiction I picked up this time!)
A Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan
I've been looking for a good fantasy fave from the non-YA section, and thanks to some stellar recommendations, this one had been on my TBR for a while! I'm pretty lucky to have grabbed it, because it was the only copy of the first installment in the series that was on the shelf.

Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi
I absolutely fell in love with Boy, Snow, Bird, when I read it on a camping trip early last summer, and was ready to pick up another of Oyeyemi's titles. While I considered her other notable works - like White is for Witching, and What is Not Yours is Not Yours - this one seemed the most interesting, while also being the most cost-effective. (The other books were a little too well-loved, at too high a price to justify it!)

Look at Me, Jennifer Egan
Egan has been an autobuy author and personal favorite since I first read her Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad in my freshman year English class. Unfortunately, that means that the books I have on hers on my TBR have now outstripped the number of books of hers that I've actually read... and I get my hands on Manhattan Beach as quickly as I want to, that's going to be one more atop the pile!

So not only was Portland inspiring - as always - but it has given me plenty of new books to lean into 2018 with, alongside all of those new ideas. While we probably won't get the chance to return terribly soon, I think I have plenty of reading material to enjoy in the meantime!

Have you ever visited Powell's Books? Where is your favorite bookish destination? Let me know, in the comments below!