Thursday, December 30, 2010

The W's of Reading: My Year End Wrap Up

Sometimes I'm not sure that looking back at my year is such a good thing.  For one, it flew by and I feel like I accomplished next to nothing other than sheer survival.  Also, I can't say that I read many things this year that really tickled my fancy (so to say).  I did have a few things I liked this year and a couple of real dislikes, so I thought I'd share my stats and favorites, etc.

Books Read:  117 (although I have two more I'm almost finished with)  This is actually an interesting statistic for me, since I've never read more than 100 books in a year.  Honestly, I'm not sure the number of books I read matters though.  There were some cases where I felt like I was rushing through my reading (when I could squeeze it in) because I was trying to meet my unsaid goal of reading over 100.  Having said this, I vow that for this upcoming year that I don't care how many books I read.  Yep, I'm taking the pressure off.

Top Reads of 2010:

Back in January I finished reading Meg Cabot's The Princess Diaries Series.  It was such a cute conclusion to the series and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Princess Mia really grew up along the way, and I have to say that it was a nice progression through these books.

February brought Blankets by Craig Thompson.  This graphic novel was gritty and real, and the artistic representation of the themes of this novel were perfect for one of my first reading experiences with graphic novels.  I have many book bloggers to thank for pointing me towards this great read!

I also finished Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy in February.  Honestly, I really love Hardy's themes and tragic plot lines.  I know I'm a sucker for tragedies and feel that they are closer to reality than many want to acknowledge (yes, I'm a bit fatalistic that way), but I really enjoyed this novel.  (I also recently reviewed the film Jude that was based off the novel.)

In March I found through a network of amazing bloggers the Pink Carnation series by Lauren Willig.  I've been listening to these on audio book this year and really have enjoyed the play between the modern historian seeking out these historical spies and the story of these female spies themselves.  I'm nearing the end on this series, so I'm off to find another great one to sink my teeth into.

The Last War by Ana Menendez was one of those books that I've since realized is a personal taste factor.  My friend Colette (I hope I spelled that right...since we so rarely go by our first names here!) over at A Buckeye Girl Reads really didn't enjoy it after I had raved about it.  In fact, it was one of her most disappointing reads of the year.  What can I say?  I liked it, but she didn't.  My bff felt the same about Jude the Obscure.  I don't think I'm bad at recommending books, but have to remember that my likes (tragedy and such) are just not everyone's cup of tea!

Things took a lovely, surprising twist in the fun read Rumor Has It by Jill Mansell.  I'm ashamed to say that I wasn't expecting much in this review book that I was sent, but ended up really loving Mansell's writing style and story.  This was a fun British chick-lit book in all the best ways.  Trust me on this one.  If you like happy (not vapid) chick lit, then this is a great book to get your hands on.  Now I'm eager to try out other books my Mansell and am ashamed I haven't yet grabbed another one yet.

In August, before heading home from Hawaii for the summer, I devoured Frangipani by Celeste Vaite in one sitting.  Set in Tahiti, the female characters in this novel really grabbed me and sucked me in.  Right now I'm reading Breadfruit (that I had to request my library purchase).  Now that I have my hands on book two, I'll be tearing through the last books in this series.

I haven't been shy about my appreciation for Sharon Lathan's Pride and Prejudice follow up novels (which also topped my favorites last year).  This December I was happy to read and review A Darcy Christmas, which featured Lathan, along with Amanda Grange and Carolyn Eberhart.  I enjoyed all of the stories in this short collection, but have to give newcomer, Carolyn Eberhart, props for her cute retelling of The Christmas Carol.  They were all great though, and I highly recommend this little collection in you enjoy all things Austen! 

I had several books that I just didn't connect with or didn't like.  Listen, I give all authors props for the hard work that they do, but not every book connects with every person.  Right?  I had two books this last year that really got a reaction out of me:

Jennifer Johnson is Sick of Being Single by Heather McElhatton
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Now it's time for me to think about possible challenges I'll join this next year.  Honestly, I'm still pretty undecided.  It might be into January before I even decide, so we'll see!

Review: Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen

Honestly, I'm now going to own my fan status of Anna Godbersen.  For whatever reason, Godbersen captures stories about time periods that I love, and all set in New York City.  When I heard about the release of Bright Young Things months and months ago, I was the first on hold for the book at my local library.  Sadly, they can take awhile to order and process new books, but I did finally get my hands on it and did my best to read when I had the chance. 

Anna Godbersen first started with her Luxe series, about  a privileged society in turn of the century New York City.  Insert insane expectations, disassociated parents, and unrequited love and you've got the makings of a great, dramatic novel that is the Luxe series.  (Here is my last review of Splendor.)  Thankfully, I was able to bring my copy of Bright Young Things with me to Hawaii for Christmas.  I had started it already, but just needed some uninterrupted time to finish it and Christmas was the perfect time to do just that!

Synopsis:  Centered on New York City at the time of the flappers and prohibition, two young ladies run from their lives in Ohio to try to find themselves and their new lives in the big city.  Letty Larkspur thinks she can make it big as a singer and performer, while Cordelia Grey wants to find the infamous father who didn't know she was alive.  Even in 1929, the big city was truly the big time and both girls must hit it big either on their own hard work or luck. 

Review:  Bright Young Things was one of those reads that I felt had to be taken in all at once.   Because the chapters are usually broken up by different story lines, about different characters, it's easy to get lost and have to read for awhile to get back into the swing of things.  There were times that I mixed up the characters Letty and Cordelia, which might sound strange, but I did have to flip back a few times to make sure I knew which character was which.  Once the story gets going, it's amazing how many directions it heads into.  It really did keep me moving though the story at a pretty quick pace.

Although the story moves along in several directions, I'm still shocked at how much space was covered, how much things changed, and yet how little time that passed!  Having said that, I wondered how plausible was some of the action in the story?  Letty wants to make it big in entertainment, and she makes a great stab at it.  Cordelia wants to meet up with the infamous father she's never known, and she definitely meets him and complications ensue.  I suppose these are all the things that a great, dramatic story are built around.

Regardless of the switching story lines and the dramatic way that the action takes place, I really liked the novel.  There is something about Godbersen's style and voice that has me flipping pages.  For some reason, Godbersen reminds me of Edith Wharton, and not just because they've written about similar themes, but there is something about her descriptions that seem familiar.  In short, the stories are dishy and fun to read.  I'm just thankful we have more to look forward to down the road!

*FTC Disclosure:  This review is based off of a library copy of the novel.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Scene of the Blog: Come See!

Thanks to Cathy over at Kittling Books, I am the featured person for "Scene of the Blog" today!  On her blog, she shares the world of other bloggers' working spaces with us, which is pretty interesting to see where people often spend their time writing and working.  Mine is relegated to my office and front room on the couch, so in essence, you can take a peak at my house. 

You'll also get to see my "Gato," which really is his name.  Yes, my cat's name is "cat" in Spanish.  :)  When my mom moved to Hawaii, the quarantine laws were so strict and kenneling so expensive that she told me I had to take him.  At first, we had some growing pains, as he tore up the carpet around my garage door in the hopes that he could go outside like at home, but we're now doing much better together.

Anyway, drop on by Kittling Books to take a peek at my work space!  Also, take a look around at her book blog and the great reviews she has going up all the time.  Mahalo!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Review: Dating Mr. December by Phillipa Ashley

Lifetime film based on Dating Mr. December
Christmas was really nice this year.  On Christmas Day we took it easy, slept in, and ate breakfast before tackling the presents.  We each seemed to get lots of DVD sets of TV series and movies, more so than books.  That was fine though, since my "To Be Read" pile is about to kill me!  I'm thinking that it's about time to challenge myself to only read what I already have.  That alone would take me half the year. 

Late in the afternoon, we headed to the beach to read and catch a cool breeze.  (Yes, while snow is falling on the mainland, we've been praying for a little wind!)  I finally had a chance to sit down with Phillipa Ashley's reprint by Sourcebooks, Dating Mr. December, which they sent me a couple of months ago.  The novel was made into a lifetime film last year called, "12 Men of Christmas" with Kristen Chenoweth, which I haven't seen, but remember seeing advertisements for on TV.  I usually pretty hesitant about Lifetime movies, but I'll have to check this out after reading the book!  The novel was a fun romance, that honestly wasn't all that "Christmas"-like.  Sure, there is a Mr. December, but not much else about Christmas pops up, so this is one of those books you could read at any time.

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Emma Tremayne leaves her high-powered PR job and moves to the Lake District looking for peace, quiet-and celibacy. So perhaps it's not the best idea when, in the spirit of "community-mindedness," she agrees to help the local mountain rescue team fund raise by putting together a "tasteful" nude calendar. Especially since quite a lot of the community seems to mind what she's up to-including the tall, dark and handsome Mr. December, Will Tennant, who appears to have gotten the wrong impression about Emma's intentions. So how does she convince him that he's more than just the flavor of the month?"

Review:  Although titled Dating Mr. December, this romantic story isn't really set in December or centered on Christmas at all.  In fact, as I was reading it, I hoped that readers wouldn't get caught up in the title and put off reading it until the holidays!  This is definitely a tense, sexy read. 

The initial lead in to Emma and Will (hunky Mr. December) meeting one another and becoming attracted was pretty short.  Those kinds of "I like you baby" leads sometimes have me rolling my eyes a bit, since I'm ever the pessimist about those kinds of love interests.  I'll be honest, I felt that way in this story as well, but thankfully the author created a palpable tension between these two characters that kept me flipping pages.  In pretty short order, they were snubbing one another and hiding past hurts and pain.  Will was said to be a real prig who had abandoned a fiance on their wedding day, while Emma had just found that her boyfriend was having an affair with her boss, causing her to move to Will's town and away from London.  Obviously, there was more to the story, which we as readers want to see them resolve.  

In the end, this romance was pretty good.  I liked the tension and misunderstandings between the two characters, so it wasn't all about the "come hither" of a classic romance.  Although it looks and sounds like a playful, fun read, it was much more serious and tense than it lets on.  Really, this is a romance you could read any time, even though the set up and cover scream Christmas.  Also, if you enjoy the added tension that inevitably pushes two people together (which I do), then this is a perfect romantic read.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a review copy provided by Sourcebooks.

Although I thought this romance turned out to not be much about Christmas or the holidays, I still think it counts as my second in "The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge 2010".  The challenge is being hosted by The True Book Addict & The Christmas Spirit Blog.  The challenge started on Friday, November 26th and runs until January 6th, but you can still join in!  In fact, you can read as little as one book.  Even if you don't want to join the challenge, you can find out about other "seasonal" reads from other people participating (which is one reason I like joining these).  For more information or to sign up, visit their site today!  Who knows, you might be able to set up a Christmas wish list of reads for next year. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas 2010: Mele Kalikimaka

Merry Christmas everyone.  What a nice holiday break this year!  Instead of two weeks that involved a quick transition straight into Christmas as soon as I arrived, we had this nice week leading up to it.  My best friend Doc arrived on Monday and although we like to lay around and enjoy the downtime, we've had a chance to get out and do some kind of outdoorsy sort of stuff.  Yes, I can hardly believe it myself.  I think that the downpour of rain for several days really gave us the push to get out and enjoy the sunshine.  Below are some of the pictures from our escapades over the last couple of days.


As you can see in this picture, the storms pushed all sorts of debris up onto the beach.  In one sense it's nice to know that the junk isn't out in the water, and on the other hand, it's a little freaky to see what comes out to land on the beach!  Once you got over the wood and stuff stacked on the beach, the sand and water were beautiful.  (Temple & Hukilau Beach)

Here's my friend "Doc," who wanted to be in the picture as "proof" of her Christmas holiday.  My mom wasn't quite as eager to be on camera.  

We decided to take advantage of the day and drove down to hike to the lighthouse. We hadn't ever done it before, so we thought it was as good a time as any!  On the way, we stopped off at the Pali Lookout, which looks down over Kaneohe Bay.  It's really breathtaking.

Below are the pictures from the top of Makapuu Lighthouse Trail.  The hike actually killed all three of us, which it really shouldn't have, but we're not exactly up to snuff this time of year.  I'll tell you, I sure made a New Year's Resolution to hit cardio a bit more after hiking up that trail!  We're all hobbling around, which is pretty funny to see, but the hobbling was well earned, right?  You can see the view we were able to take in.  

It's kind of fun to be sunburned and sore from all of the hiking we've done.  Now we're going to settle in for a nice Christmas Day.  To everyone out there, I hope you have a wonderful, Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Film Review: Jude (1996)

Before leaving for Christmas vacation, I had the chance to watch the newer version of Jude the Obscure, starring Kate Winslet.  Back in September I followed up my reading of Thomas Hardy's novel with a 1971 film version  (See "Film Review:  Jude the Obscure").  I'll be honest, it was a scary version, so outdated and somewhat bizarre that I simply didn't enjoy it.  Thanks to some great blogger friends, they led me to the modernized version of the film starring Kate Winslet and Christopher Eccleston, which was much better than its older version.

As described in my earlier review, this film is based around Thomas Hardy's tragic story of the stonemason Jude, who only wanted to go to college and learn.  Social class and privilege kept him from his dreams as he had to get married to a woman he didn't necessarily love, who eventually ran off and left him alone.  Jude then met and fell in love with his cousin Sue, who has her own forward-thinking ideas that challenge Jude and the reader to question society's mores.

I've mentioned before what a Thomas Hardy fan I've become.  I love the brutally honest way Hardy attacks the problems he saw in society and the impacts they had on people.  Having said that, I can 100% see why people of his time thought he was too controversial.  Thomas Hardy was ahead of his time and they just weren't ready to see how individuals were affected by certain practices in their society that they deemed "proper" and appropriate.  While they viewed their strict social structure to be holding the fabric of their society together, it actually shunned and tormented those who didn't fit into these constructs.  Jude is one such film that demonstrates just how far these constructs will push someone.

In this updated film version, we get more of a sense of the free spirit that Sue was, as played by Kate Winslet.  I suppose that in the novel and in the older film we don't quite catch Sue's views on life and philosophy, but she seems flighty and even lacking common sense!  In this case, Kate Winslet does an amazing job capturing the essence of this character and even makes it more of her own.  Through Winslet, I actually caught nuances to her character that I hadn't considered before, things that made her feel more calculated and in control of her position in society than explored in the other pieces.  In short, Winslet showed me just how complicated and multi-faceted Sue's character really was in this story.

As an adaptation film, I found Jude to be much better at capturing the heart of Hardy's message.  Tragedy is not easy to watch, but this film ended in such a way that I walked away wondering "what if" for our main characters as I did when I finished the book.  Although there were a couple of nude scenes in this version, as in the previous film, that threw me a little, I did feel that it made more sense with this plot development than in the earlier adaptation.  I'm still not sure that either was completely necessary to get across the point, but considering Hardy's point about morality and marriage, I can see why it was included.  The tension in the film between the couple adds that extra layer of tragedy that makes sense in a real-life sort of way.  In short, it's tragedy in all that entails, but beautifully done.

I really liked this adaptation.  It was bold, gritty, and laid open for us to consider.  Thank you again to those of you who led me to this newer version film version of the novel.  It was much closer to the tone and message of Hardy's original, and a story that will continue to make me think.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reading Challenges 2010

Some challenges I met with ease, while others I failed miserably.  Since I don't anticipate adding anything new to my challenge lists, I thought I'd wrap it up for the year and share how I did.

Work in Progress..The 1% Challenge wrapped up in March.  Finishing 13 books didn't happen, but here are the reviews I manged: 

  1.   The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan (One of my favorite reviews in my opinion!)
  2. Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai
  3. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
CompletedThe Audiobook Challenge was a no-brainer for me.  Because I listen to books while I drive to and from work, this was by far the easiest challenge to meet!

1.  The Actor and the Housewife
2.  The secret History of the Pink Carnation
3.  The Masque of the Black Tulip
4.  The History of Love
5.  The Deception of the Emerald Ring
6.  The Seduction of the Crimson Rose

Completed The Books I Won Challenge was easy as well, but only because I had a small number to reach.

1.  The Brightest Star in the Sky
2.  The 19th Wife
3.  Love's First Light

CompletedThe E-Book Challenge is also a fairly easy one for me to accomplish.  I love my Kindle and it is easy to fit books into this challenge!

1.  Just the Sexiest Man Alive
2.  Dead as a Doornail
3.  New Moon
4.  Eclipse
5.  Definitely Dead
6.  Holly's Inbox  

Incomplete.   The Harry Potter Challenge was a little trickier.  Since I was teaching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in my Popular Fiction class, this challenge was meant to prepare me.  By the time the challenge ended though, I still had only read the first few in the series.  Since then, I've knocked more of them out.  Too bad I didn't do it before the challenge ended!

1.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
2.  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Incomplete.  Of all the challenges I joined, The Reading Resolutions Challenge was the one I repeatedly forgot about!  Sadly, I only met one of the goals.

1.  Finish the Princess Diaries Series 

Incomplete.  To be honest, I think if I were to look back through my reads over this past year, I bet I met this challenge, The To Be Read Challenge.  My problem was that I kept forgetting to label it.  Here's what I did accomplish.

1.  Pillars of the Earth
2.  Jude the Obscure
3.  The Lace Maker's of Glenmarra
4.  Bones of Faerie 
5.  Frangipani
6.  Dear Julia 
7.  The Hourglass Door  

Completed.  Thanks to a goal to finish up The Princess Diaries series, the Young Adult Challenge was also as easy one to wrap up.

1.  Princess Mia
2.  Forever Princess
3.  Calamity Jack
4.  Scones and Sensibility
5.  Lockdown
6.  Forever
7.  The Hunger Games
8.  Catching Fire
9.  New Moon
10.  Eclipse
11.  The Dead Tossed Waves
12.  Between the Deep Blue Sea and Me 

Now that the year is coming to a close, I'm still up in the air about joining challenges again.  I know that people put a lot of time and energy into putting these challenges together, and I want to honor that.  Sometimes when I join a challenge, I tend to then let that dictate my reading, which prevents me from either succeeding or at picking up books I'd like to read.  I still have a little time to decide what I'd like to do, but I'm wondering if Read-A-Longs might be a better deal for me?  If making reading goals and giving yourself  a push is what a challenge is about, I might need to tweak the way I'm doing it and fit my goals to my reading style.  We'll see!

What about you?  Do reading challenges help you meet reading goals that you wouldn't have met otherwise?  How do you use them?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Yes, I'm one of the last to finish this last book in the Hunger Games trilogy.  I started it soon after it came out, but just didn't quite get into much of a groove to finish it in a timely manner.  I could make excuses of busy work schedules and stacks of papers that needed grading, but that really wasn't the deal.  Is there an easy way of saying that I didn't like it?

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Young Katniss Everdeen has survived the dreaded Hunger Games not once, but twice, but even now she can find no relief. In fact, the dangers seem to be escalating: President Snow has declared an all-out war on Katniss, her family, her friends, and all the oppressed people of District 12. The thrill-packed final installment of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy will keep young hearts pounding."

Review:  Because of the mass reviews already posted, I'll make my own rather short.  I wasn't a fan of the concluding story in the trilogy.  The writing was well done in Mockingjay, and kept with the tone and themes of the previous books in the series, so I couldn't fault the story too much.  My eventual feelings about the book were based on my own dislike of drawn-out fight scenes, frustrations over the build up in the action, and annoyance with the conclusion.  While there were hints of what came about, I felt frustrated and a little manipulated.  Was that the point, that maybe Katniss also felt manipulated?  Yes, I'm sure.  For me, I felt that taking that road diminished my reading, but that's just my opinion.  

Although I didn't end up liking the conclusion to the series, I know that many readers consider it the culmination of one of their all-time favorite series.  I definitely liked these books and really enjoyed Catching Fire, but just wasn't over the moon with the ending.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a personal copy of the novel.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The "Should Have Done" Syndrome

First off, can I give a great big shout out and thanks to Reagan at Star Shadow for the lovely Christmas book box and goodies that she sent me for the book exchange!  I actually received it earlier this week on a day that I would call pretty stinky.  Imagine what a sweet little lift this gave me mid-week, so thank you to Reagan for the AMAZING box of books, goodies, and gift she sent!  Since I participated in two book exchanges this year, I'm actually not 100% sure which one this was part of, but I didn't want to wait to tell her it was really lovely.  Oh, and let's not forget that it gave me a wonderful new blog to follow.  Thank you so very much!  :)

Tomorrow I fly out for Hawaii, which I'm super excited about!  When you live somewhere that is cold and dreary (and I actually do like winter--most of the time), it's really nice to escape to a place that is still like summer.  I love throwing on shorts and t-shirts, flip-flops and a ponytail.  In essence, it's just nice to get a little sun.

Having said that, I have to say that I'm REALLY not prepared to leave.  I have so much grading to do for school that it hurts to think about it!  Besides grading, I have blog posts that I should have planned ahead on and just didn't.  I just didn't have enough hours in the day to live a normal life and get it all finished.  Now I'm flying out tomorrow and realize that I haven't done this, that, and a million other things that I "should have" done! 

Here are a few things from my "should have done" list.  Tell me if you recognize any of these:
  • Returned the library books that will be overdue while I'm gone, that I can no longer renew, because I took too long to read them!  (Nope, I can't take them back tonight.)
  • Put my work gifts with a nice card, rather than relying on the raffia ribbons I had my TA tie around them and then deliver for me!  (Well, I wrote a couple of cards, but ran out of time.)
  • Actually sent Christmas cards to family and close friends. 
  • Cleaned my house so that I'm not leaving a dirty pig sty to return home to clean.
  • Made goodies to share with friends and neighbors.  (Although, that one can be dangerous to one's thighs.)
  • Maybe picked up one more gift for so and so because I didn't get enough already?  (Yes, this one haunts me every year, no matter how hard I try not to let it!)
  • Taken the time to breathe in the spirit of the season until now.  
  • Read one more Christmas story before now.  
Now here's the bright side of this "should have done" list.  I can now ignore it because there's nothing I can really do about it all!  I'm on vacation as of tomorrow morning and I'm ready to throw on the flip flops and call it another beautiful holiday season!

What are you already feeling like you "should have done" this year?  Even better, what "will you do" before the year is up?  (I like that better!)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Happy Birthday to Jane Austen!

On Thursday, December 16th is Jane Austen’s 235th birthday.
To honor Jane Austen's birthday, Sourcebooks, the world’s leading publisher of Jane Austen fiction, is offering an amazing deal for readers of Austen fiction.  
From Sourcebooks:  "Special e-book editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Mansfield Park will be available for free for one day only. These celebratory editions include the full novels, plus the legendary color illustrations of the Brock brothers, originally created to accompany the books in 1898.
In addition to the Jane Austen classics, readers can also enjoy these bestselling Austen-inspired novels. The following bestselling e-books will be free on December 16th in honor of her birthday:
Eliza’s Daughter by Joan Aiken
The Darcys & the Bingleys by Marsha Altman
Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife by Linda Berdoll
What Would Jane Austen Do? by Laurie Brown
The Pemberley Chronicles by Rebecca Ann Collins
The Other Mr. Darcy by Monica Fairview
Mr. Darcy’s Diary by Amanda Grange
Mr. & Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy: Two Shall Become One by Sharon Lathan
Lydia Bennet’s Story by Jane Odiwe
Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy by Abigail Reynolds
Available wherever eBooks are sold."

This is a great opportunity to get a copy of Jane Austen's work on your e-books, as well as picking up some new Austen-themed books!  

Monday, December 13, 2010

Monday Musings: Christmas Movie Laughs

How can you not love this scene from Elf?  I laugh so hard every time I watch Buddy jump over each Jack-in-the-Box!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

2010 Virtual Advent Tour: Christmas Beauties as Memory

First off, let me thank Kailana from The Written World and Marg from Adventures of an Intrepid Reader for hosting the Virtual Advent Tour once again this year.  Last year was my first time participating in this wonderful, holiday event when I shared more about my family's new Hawaiian holidays in my "Mele Kalikimaka" post.  That was such a nice opportunity to really think about how my small family celebrates this joyous holiday, so thank you again to them and all those who participate and share their holidays with us!

For this year's 12th Day Virtual Advent post, I wanted to share something new to me.  As some of you might know, I purchased my first home last year.  This was an exciting and frightening time, but I have loved having my own place to call home.  Thankfully, I have plenty of holiday decorations that I've collected and purchased over the years, so decking my halls took very little effort!  In fact, my mother couldn't take her fake tree with her to Hawaii, so I inherited it from her.

One thing I've wanted to do though, that a new home reminds me, is to put up Christmas artwork.  For anyone who has purchased a new home or moved in somewhere that's bigger than what you're used to, there is always the matter of hanging things on bare walls!  Over the years I've developed an interest in collecting artwork when I travel, or at least purchasing art that has a story.  For instance, I have collected several paintings and watercolors that now hang in my home and are special to  me because of the story attached to them.  What about holiday artwork though?  That's tougher to find, at least from my experience.

"Christmas Dreaming" before having it framed.
Two years ago I taught a really bright young man who had amazing artistic talent.  In fact, for his introducing piece to our class, he created an oil painting of a locomotive to represent an important memory he had with his grandfather.  (None of the other students wanted to follow him to share their collages and mobiles made from coat hangers after that showing.)  This young man continued to produce beautiful art all year to represent things we were reading in class, or as his own response to our discussions.  Before the year ended, I approached him about possibly purchasing a piece from him.  He gave me a choice, and I decided I wanted something with a Christmas theme.  He jumped at the opportunity, both because he knew I appreciated his artwork and because I offered to pay him, and after graduating and getting ready to head off into the world he presented me with the final product on a little board.

Just yesterday I went to pick up the finished product after having it custom framed.  Thankfully, it is just in time for the holidays!  I can't express how much this piece of artwork will mean to me, thanks to the story and memories behind it.  As teachers, we sometimes forget names.  What we don't forget are the stories and cumulative memories we've collected over the years.  We may not remember the names, years, or exact details, but the feelings and thoughts it left behind are there forever.  In a way, this painting is a visual representation of what one student left in my memory and heart. 

For other Virtual Advent Tour stops on this, Day 12, visit:

Michelle @ Galleysmith
Thank you again to everyone involved, and to all of my friends and readers!  With less than two weeks to go, let me join in and wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Review: A Darcy Christmas by Amanda Grange, Sharon Lathan, & Carolyn Eberhart

In the midst of paper grading and Christmas preparations, I have thankfully had a copy of A Darcy Christmas to escape into!  A couple of weeks ago I read the first story in the compilation, "Mr. Darcy's Christmas Carol" by Carolyn Eberhart.  It was so darling, that I decided to stop and do a single review of that first story in the book.  Since then, I've used my reading as a quick escape and recently finished it. 

Synopsis:  In a three-part, Jane Austen themed Darcy collection, we follow one of the most famous romantic couples of all time through the Christmas season.  The first story in the book is a spin off of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.  (As mentioned, I reviewed "Mr. Darcy's Christmas Carol" back in November.)  This was followed my Amanda Grange's, "Christmas Present."  In this short story, we follow Elizabeth and Darcy to the Bingley's new home, where they have just welcomed a baby.  Elizabeth is also expecting her first child, as all of the Bennet's (and even a Collins) join together for the holidays. 

Completing the collection is Sharon Lathan's, "A Darcy Christmas."  In this concluding selection, Elizabeth and Darcy take us through a series of Christmases together over the years.  Jumping across the years, this famous couple share their lives and growing family as they celebrate many happy holidays across a lifetime.

Review:  Admittedly, I genuinely enjoy reading Austen-themed remakes and retellings.  I've previously read novels by both Grange and Lathan, so I was familiar with their style of storytelling, but quickly fell in love with Everhart's cute retelling of A Christmas Carol.  Grange's tale had a lot of language that was common to other Austen novels, so the story and characters felt warm and familiar, and showed just where the Darcys and Bingleys might be in their futures.  Lathan's story, like her novels, was romantic and charming as it showed the loving relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth with their growing family.

As an Austen fan, I loved the sweet holiday flair brought to the characters of Pride and Prejudice.  The three separate stories were unique and fun to read, each with a style that helped it stand out from the others.  Honestly, I had a wonderful time escaping into the possible lives of the Darcys and would definitely recommend this compilation to Austen fans.  In short, A Darcy Christmas brings Jane Austen charm to the holidays in a delightful way.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a review copy of the novel provided by Sourcebooks.

This beautiful collection counts as my first in "The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge 2010".  The challenge is being hosted by The True Book Addict & The Christmas Spirit Blog.  It started on Friday, November 26th and runs until January 6th.  You can read as little as one book on up.  For more information or to sign up, visit their site today!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Review: The Hourglass Door by Lisa Mangum

As part of my district's Local Author Book Club, we read The Hourglass Door by Lisa Mangum.  We actually met last month to discuss the novel, as well as had the chance to have a Q&A with the author.  This has been a really great opportunity to read more local authors, and for me, a chance to participate in a book club again!  For whatever reason, book clubs have proven to be impossible for me in the past, so taking another shot at one has been a great experience.

Synopsis:  Abby is having a perfect senior year and has the perfect boyfriend.  That is, until the new Italian student Dante arrives at school and throws everything out of whack.  Dante seems mysterious and spontaneous, while her own longtime friend and current boyfriend is predictable and a little disconnected from what she really likes.  Besides the intrigue that hangs over Dante, Abby finds that she's feeling off kilter a bit.  In fact, she has moments that just don't seem set in the present or at any moment.  Dante seems to have the answers that help Abby feel back in the present moment again, maybe because he doesn't come from the present, but more like the past?

Review:  In the beginning I really struggled to relate to the relationship between Abby and her long-time boyfriend.  While I understand that teenagers can fixate on their young love, I was a bit nauseated at times by the seemingly over the top romantic elements of the story.  Having spoken to some of my students who have read the novel though, they loved it and felt it tapped into ways they felt, so it must just be my age and experience (yes, and even my job as a teacher of teens) that gets in the way.  Abby isn't a totally helpless character, but she definitely has the "damsel in distress" element going for her, as the male characters play into the hero portion of the story. 

Once the story hits about the mid point, it really picks up speed.  There is a time-travel element to it that is intriguing, as well as references to classical literature that kept me on my toes.  Because of the unique twists in the story, it's hard to know exactly where the story is going, which is nice.  Yes, it has a love story.  Yes, a problem (a BIG problem) pops up to try to separate the couple.   However, you can't really predict what is going to happen, at least not completely.  In fact, the ending is so surprising in a way, that I'm glad I don't have to wait for the next book to be published to find out more!

One thing I did question in the novel, that really isn't a criticism of it, per se, but about young adult novels in general.  Where are the parents?  It seems like there are fleeting references to them being involved in their child's life, or even questioning them, but where do they go when their child is falling apart or risking life and death in some over the top action sequence?  I'm sure an author has to keep the parents less involved than some, so the character can experience a more dramatic conflict than the parent who keeps tabs on their child 24/7, right?  I get that you can't have the parents interrupt the story too much, but I've always wondered why the parents don't pick up on more of the craziness going on around them?!?

Overall, this is a fun book to read and consider.  While it had it's slow opening, and sometimes frustrating character interactions, it had a unique set of circumstances that kept me reading.  As a teen novel, I can say from experience with my students that they really liked it and felt connected to the story, which is a great thing when you're wanting to captivate young readers!

Lisa Mangum has also published Book 2, The Golden Spiral.  The final book in the trilogy, The Forgotten Locket will be released in May 2011.  For more information, see Lisa Mangum's official website.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review is based on a personal copy of the novel.

This review also counts as one of my 7th in the TBR challenge.  I'm not sure I'll be able to finish the challenge, but am happy to be able to say that this was one of the books I've had for awhile and meant to read!  Why I don't pick away at more from my pile, I'll never know. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

What Does "Old" Mean Anyway?

About a month ago, I overheard a small group of my students talking about television shows.  Here's how it went:
Student 1:  "Yea, so my mom was watching Friends last night.  It's so funny."
Student 2.  "Oh, I hate that show!  Those people in it are SO old."
Student 3.  "No kidding.  That one lady is in that Cougar show?  It's so lame."
Student 1.  "I know they're old, but I still think that show is funny."
Student 2.  "Yea, but it plays on TBS!  Any show in reruns on TBS is old."
Student 3.  "Besides, the way it's filmed is so old fashioned. Did you know that show started like when I was born?!?"
Me:  *Horrified and sobbing at my desk!*
After hearing that conversation, I had a bit of a moment.  Friends was one of those shows that frame worked my 20's.  To me, Ross and Rachel were the bomb, and who didn't listen to U2's The Joshua Tree religiously after Season 2? 

Thanks to this conversation, I started watching the seasons again, and all of a sudden things had changed for me. Listen, I still love me some Friends and am reliving all the moments from my 20's that I wish I could get back, I old?!? Nah!  Really, I'm just feeling a bit nostalgic, but who knew Friends would be something to be nostalgic about already?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Review: The Betrayal of the Blood Lily by Lauren Willig

Here we are at another Sunday and I just didn't feel like I had anything great to share today!  It's been a low-key weekend filled with grading papers and cleaning house.  See.  Nothing spectacular at all.  Thankfully, I worked in a huge chunk of time yesterday to read and was able to finish a couple more books.  Those reviews are to come later, but this week I finished listening to Lauren Willig's The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, which is the 6th installment in the Pink Carnation series.

Synopsis:  From Booklist, "Willig switches the setting of her Pink Carnation series from eighteenth-century England to colonial India in the sixth installment, which finds wild Penelope Deveraux married off to Lord Frederick Staines after the two are caught in a compromising position. Though they connect physically, the spirited, witty Penelope and the pompous, hedonistic Freddy have little in common. Freddy’s new position as special envoy to an English ambassador has brought them both to India, where rumors of intrigue involving a French spy known as the Marigold are afoot. Already floundering in her loveless marriage, Penelope sets out to unmask the spy, suspecting that their serious escort, Captain Alex Reid, might be the culprit. But as Penelope grows closer to Alex, her suspicions give way to a deep mutual attraction. Willig brings colonial India to vibrant life through Penelope’s eyes, and the sparks flying between Penelope and Alex generate plenty of heat. By taking the story to India, Willig injects a new energy in her already thriving, thrilling series, and presents the best entry to date."

Review:  In this sixth installment in the spy serie, The Pink Carnation, we find ourselves in the midst of a pretty unhappily married couple with Penelope and Frederick.  This good deal of tension between them makes for a pretty interesting lead into a growing friendship and relationship between Penelope and Alex Reid.  It seemed to me that Willig set Reid up to be the "good guy" foil to Frederick's bad behavior from the start.  Frederick just didn't seem very interested in the happiness and safe-keeping of his wife at all, while Alex did.  Frederick had a wandering eye, while Alex seemingly did not.  All that Frederick lacked, Alex seemed to have in spades.  How could a reader not fall for a strong, protective male like Alex, regardless of the strong personality exhibited by Penelope?

Set in India, this seemed to ease some of the stifling propriety that was held over the other couples in previous installments.  Also, I thought there was more time spent on the story set in the past, than in the present day story between our modern-day researcher Eloise and her new beau Colin.  For once, I was okay with that.  Usually, I have been annoyed at the long switches away from the present-day researcher revealing all of this past history to us, but I liked Penelope's spunk and the way Alex played off of her behavior.  We still had spy action going on in this story, but it didn't seem as involved as previous stories.  In reality, it just added another layer to the complicated love triangle going on in the novel.

This particular installment was one of my more favorite ones in the series.  Although I've read the other books, I didn't feel that I had to read them to really get this story.  It would be nice, but not completely necessary.  The storytelling is engaging and the tension nicely played out.  Overall, a fun diversion to the England-set stories of previous installments, and one that I enjoyed reading.

*FTC Disclosure:  Review is based on a library copy of the novel.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Response: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yes, I finally finished reading Eat, Pray, Love.  Please note that this is a response and not a review.  I just couldn't keep myself out of this one!  Although a Reader-Response critique is not the best approach to any book, one can't help but draw on what one feels and thinks.  In the case of Eat, Pray, Love, I could NOT separate my own life from Gilbert's, which is why this reading took me so very long.  Did I like it?  No--and yes.  It's all very complicated.

Synopsis:  Elizabeth Gilbert found herself in a complicated, unfulfilled marriage, questioning why she settled for relationships that didn't fully meet her needs.  After continuing to cry out to God, the universe, or to whatever higher power that might be listening, Gilbert let go of her crazy life and marriage to travel to Italy, India, and Indonesia for one year.  In each location, Gilbert spent four months.  Italy served as the basis for "Eat" as she devoured gorgeously prepared Italian foods like pizza without thought of her waistline.  India was her locale for "Pray" as she studied at an ashram, learning to quiet her mind and be at peace.  Finally, Indonesia became her place of "Love" in that she accepted and loved herself, but also found the unexpected love of another man near the conclusion of her journey.

Review:  Unsettled would be a good word to use with my reading of Eat, Pray, Love.  In the beginning I found myself so annoyed by Gilbert's constant whining about her marriage and non-stop relationships with men, that I wanted to shake her.  It quickly became apparent to me that I was NOT going be able to separate my own mid-30's, single viewpoint from the text.  Having suffered from one gut-wrenching break up that has challenged my adulthood, to smaller possible relationships that went the wayside, I just couldn't sympathize with Gilbert's view.  Basically, she seemed to feel that *gasp* she had always had a man in her life and always viewed the glass half full, only to be disappointed by their eventual failings.  Okay, so that would be frustrating, but altering to the point of stopping in your tracks to go live overseas for a year?  Who gets to ever do that in real life?  Who gets to be so self-indulgent that they can put a time out on the world to just center and align themselves to God and the universe?  Well, not me.  I have bills to pay and students to teach.  Yes, I will admit to being jealous that someone could justify themselves into such a journey. 

As mentioned, I really was jealous of the journey Gilbert went on.  I was so jealous that I could feel myself turning green around the edges!  Here's the thing.  How could I ever justify or afford such a journey of the soul?  When you've been raised to "put one foot in front of the other," to face challenges head on, it's often hard to swallow a more freewheeling view of self-discovery.  Maybe my own Western ideology about facing challenges prevented me from connecting to Gilbert and I should just own it.  Could it be that I could use some decompressing and self-centered discovery?  Why yes.  I'm sure I could.  I just know that there is no time or place for me to really take that kind of time out.  Besides, in the process of trying to acknowledge all the good in my life, a journey like this would seem to be insulting for all the people I know who face far great adversity than she or I ever could.

All right.  So she went on a journey to find herself, literally, and did just that.  Good on her.  I appreciated the self-reflection, the insights on quieting the mind, the reflections of our culture that showed me that we really do allow life to suck us along at a dizzying pace.  The message of truth in self, regardless of possessions or relationships is one that is universal and good to return to often.  I recognize that we get caught up in things that are small and lose sight of things greater than ourselves.  In the end, I suppose my resentment came from the fact that I felt looked down on for being "Western" and not having the time or means to take off to travel the world.  I'm not sure that was really her message, so I have to applaud her for laying her own pain out there for all of us to examine.  In her case, she had to take this journey to find herself.  It was the adventure of a lifetime that taught her many wonderful things about the purpose of life.  I think I'm going to have to stay put and find myself in more amenable ways.

Overall, and amazingly (considering my earlier frustration), I did end up liking the book.  Yes, I was terribly annoyed by the weakness and self-indulgence I saw coming from the pages of her story, but by the end I appreciated the lessons she had learned.

Side note on the film:  Surprisingly, I didn't have a moment's thought about Julia Robert's character going on this journey around the world.  In fact, I felt great camaraderie with the screen version of Gilbert, feeling greater sympathy for her situation than I ever had in the book.  I've decided that we've come to expect self-indulgence from a movie character, or at least a more glamorous life than many of us lead.  In that sense, I felt for the seemingly pained and lost character, and was eager to see her happy again.  Besides, it was sunny, bright Julia Roberts.  I think I might have her to thank for pulling me into the movie and maybe getting some of Gilbert's message.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a personal copy of the novel.

What was your response to the book and the film?