Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best Books of 2013

This year has been one of the strangest reading years I've had in a very long time.  Professionally speaking, I've felt more pressure to split my reading up so that I can not only find great reads to take into the classroom, but also keep up on my A game and know about great literary reads for my AP students.  In the end, that means that I now have a new 3 part reading personality: a YA/Pop Lit. reader, a classics/literary reader, and an I-don't-care-what-this-book-is-as-long-as-it-helps-me-escape reader.

Having said that, let me share my three categories with you!  Let's start with my top reads in the YA/Popular Lit. category for 2013.

What was not to love about this book?  I loved the escape to Paris, the realism in the way the characters dealt with their situation, and yet the total, "Holy crap! I would never run away to Paris for one day like that!" that I felt when reading it.  Seriously, I loved this YA read in 2013.

I'm not often a huge sci-fi reader, but James Dashner's The Eye of Minds came out of nowhere and really knocked me off of my feet!  This book was insanely action packed and full of Inception-like ideas such that I couldn't stop flipping pages.  Honestly, I couldn't stop recommending it enough to my students and friends.  Now I have to wait around the next read...

 Okay.  Yes, I am a bit of a Man of Steel fan (*cough* Henry Cavill *cough*), but I've always been a bit of a Superman fan, believe it or not.  I just didn't remember some of these old school comics.  I've been picking up some of the new All-Star comics, but I wanted to go back and read up on some of the pivotal comics that shaped Superman mythology.  How can you pass up the one where Superman literally gives up his life to battle Doomsday?  I Rest. My. Case.

Now, let me share my favorite AP English/Literary Reads for 2013.  This was an interesting category for me.  I didn't set out looking for favorites in this category, but actually just sat down and picked out my favorite reads for the year and noticed how many of them fell under this category.  

This was voted Best of 2013 on Goodreads, so I don't think I'm alone in saying this book was amazing!  I still haven't even written my review because I haven't put full brain energy behind what I read, and now I'm not sure I can go back and really give it justice.  Needless to say, I really loved it.  This is probably my favorite of the three books he has written.

When I started reading Wolf Hall, I started to question all of the crazies who had given it 5 stars.  Seriously?  How in the world did they keep all of the characters straight, not to mention the simple pronoun "he" matched up with the right character!  I thought I was going batty at some points.  By the time I hit about page 300--and yes, that's a long way into the book--I started to feel connected to the story of Cromwell and Henry VIII's court.  I think I'm geared up to keep moving on to the second book now!

I'm now a Thrity Umrigar fan.  Sold.  Going back and looking up her previous novels.  Now.  I really found myself drawn in by this novel of four friends battling family, religious, and political tensions beyond our imagination.  The World We Found was sobering, yet powerful, and made me a fan of Umrigar for life.

This was just a short novella by Elie Wiesel about his open heart surgery last year, which might sound strange that I selected it as one of my favorites for the year, but it was so touching that I as still thinking about it.  Having gone through a life threatening surgery or my own, I was blown away by the beauty of language that Wiesel found for something like facing mortality.  Open Heart captures his own vulnerability in a really beautiful way.

The final category is really my Favorite "Escape Read" Category for 2013, which deserves an extra award for helping me unwind from the stresses of life!  I did notice that a lot of these books tend to fall into the romance category.  What can I say?  At the end of the day, let me get away from what I normally do with a fun, modern chick story.  Here were some of my favorites this last year.

This was my last review for 2013 and such a great one to go out on.  Honestly, I love Bridget Jones and felt that Fielding did a good job of honoring her story and staying true to her characters.  No, the situation was not ideal, but the story was still honest and real.

The Chocolate Thief was the book that snuck up on me from nowhere!  I saw several book bloggers raving about these books by Laura Florand, such as Angieville, and had to give them a try.  Around Fall Break, I checked this out from the library and devoured it in one sitting.  Now that's an escape read!  My only regret was that I didn't have a box of chocolates to eat when I read this sweet read!

Here was another read that I couldn't put down!  Blackmoore was a book that had me in tears and flipping pages almost faster than I could read.  This was a book that I handed out and passed around to my friends, but ended up losing to someone!  That was how popular it ended up being.  Such a great read.  I highly recommend it.

Megan Mulry has quickly become one of my favorite contemporary romantic reads.  I've loved this Unruly Royals series so much!  Her characters show a lot of range and I love to see what they are each going to do.  These are sexy little reads, so hang on for the ride!  I've loved each and every one of them, but I have to admit that I keep thinking about A Royal Pain, about Bronte Talbot.  Maybe it was because Bronte was the first one to learn her guy was a royal and that's an exciting prospect, but I really liked this first book and it was my introduction to Mulry's fun style.  I'm excited to read more in the coming year!

Okay.  Like everyone else, this book blew me off my feet and probably blew out a few tear ducts!  I had seen this one floating around a bit and really didn't think I'd be interested, but how in the world could so many people be giving it a solid 5-stars on Goodreads?  I finally folded and checked it out on audio book at the end of October to listen to back and forth from work.  The audio book was really amazing, but it was too slow to listen to, so I had to return it before I could finish it and had to buy a used copy of it to tear through the end of the book on my own.  Yes.  I cried and then reread the ending.  I'm still thinking about it.  That's a great read.

Well, that's my year!  2013 was a great year for reading and I look forward to seeing what 2014 has in store.  I hope you all have a great one as well and would love to hear what book(s) you loved this last year!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Case For Bridget: Review of Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding

Back in 2011 I explained, however briefly, my own connection/relationship to this quirky character, Bridget Jones in a blog post about the music from the film: "Fiction, to Film, to Fantastic Music Friday: Bridget Jones Diary."  So how do I put into words how many mixed emotions I had about this third book coming out?  First off, I immediately pre-ordered it in hardback, because I have the previous books in hardback and am compulsive enough in this situation that I had to complete my set.  I then sat back and watched and listened as the world exploded into mass discussions about bits of the leaked story and how unhappy they all were with it.  Listen, I couldn't NOT read this novel if I wanted to, and I would NOT choose to just let this story go.  In the end, I firmly believe we all have to look at what Helen Fielding meant to do with these novels.  She wrote a story about a character named Bridget Jones, and this is quite possibly the culmination of her story.  How could I let it go when I had let her into my life so fully before this?  Yea.  Wasn't going to happen.  Like it or not, I HAD TO KNOW what happened!

***Spoilers Ahead.  If you have not heard anything about what has had the interwebs up in arms about this novel, then my review might not be a good place to start.***

Review:  Life's not perfect.  Is that not one of the reasons that we somehow love and connect to Bridget Jones?  Things always get messy for her, and yet it worked out for her in the end.  We saw ourselves in her, and wanted and hoped for a certain amount of our own stupid imperfections to be overlooked.  For this reason, I walked into book three knowing full well that this was going to be Bridget's story.  Helen Fielding wrote these novels about Bridget to begin with, and that's what I expected and have grown to love.  I care about her and her silly hang ups, and in the end, am willing to see where they take her.  Because of that, this book honestly took me on a strange journey that I didn't see coming.  Maybe I'm a few years older than when I read those earlier happy-go-lucky twenty something tales, but I really loved this book, and shed some pretty heartfelt tears on several occasions in reading this book.  Bridget is still Bridget.  I don't know what readers expected?  We find that Bridget is still clumsy, making silly choices, thinking irrationally, and feeling lonely.  But, she has matured and been through a lot, which is shown to us over the course of the book.  That, I completely appreciated.

Yes.  Mark Darcy is dead.  There, I said it like Dickens said it in The Christmas Carol.  I mean no disrespect, but some of the biggest nay-sayers I've seen to this book have been so hung up over this fact that I want to lay that out as the fact that it is.  Yes, we're in the present day, and Bridget is now 50 with two small children to raise. The story doesn't take up immediately after the fact, and the children were too young to completely remember him, so no the story does not wax on poetic about it.  He's not eliminated from the story or some sort of afterthought, but realistically, what happens to a person/character when life isn't the "Happily Ever After" that they think it will be?  What we do end up getting in the story are appropriate flashbacks and scenes, that show how she has handled the loss and the rearing of her children.  Honestly, I thought it was handled well and on point for this character.  Where would we expect her to be five years after the fact? 

One thing that Fielding 100% nailed was the grieving process after a certain number of years.  Somehow Fielding captured these moments where Bridget would remember something about Mark, no matter how fleeting, and they were just perfect.  She didn't wallow in them, because she didn't have time to, but you could see how completely present they still were in her life.  Perfect.  That is real. 

Bridget does wander, wholeheartedly, back into dating.  It's rather uncomfortable to watch her efforts at times, but when you consider the uncertain Bridget in her 20s and then imagine this woman in her 50s with two children who has lost such an amazing husband, how would I expect her to bounce right back into dating with ease?  Of course, she has that certain air of insecurity that you wish you could shake out of her, that even her kids see in her.  (Is it the same insecurity she saw in her mother?)  Maybe these are things that, in a sense, we really do end up working on our entire lives.  We can insert our own moralities and ideologies onto Bridget, but from her own worldview, family, and friends, she's doing the best she can.

Sincerely, I loved Mad About the Boy and have no problem adding it to the rest of the collection.  Was it the ending I hoped for or envisioned?  No way, but honestly, life has a way of doing that, so I'm okay with it.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House Into Our Home Sweet Home by Matthew Batt

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "An improbably funny account of how the purchase and restoration of a disaster of a fixer-upper saves a young marriage

When a season of ludicrous loss tests the mettle of their marriage, Matthew Batt and his wife decide not to call it quits. They set their sights instead on the purchase of a dilapidated house in the Sugarhouse section of Salt Lake City. With no homesteading experience and a full-blown quarter-life crisis on their hands, these perpetual grad students/waiters/nonprofiteers decide to seek salvation through renovation, and do all they can to turn a former crack house into a home. Dizzy with despair, doubt, and the side effects of using the rough equivalent of napalm to detoxify their house, they enter into full-fledged adulthood with power tools in hand.

Heartfelt and joyous, Sugarhouse is the story of how one couple conquers adversity and creates an addition to their family, as well as their home."

Review:  Since I live in the Salt Lake area, I was intrigued by the premise of this novel when I saw it at the library, and am also a bit of a sucker for stories about grad students on a bit of a life journey.  In this case, it involved a major renovation.  In this area, those renovations can involve some major-league fixer-uppers, but worth a pretty penny if done correctly in the area of the valley he's written about.  In short, this novel was well worth the time and I will say up front that I really did enjoy it.

As an English major, Matthew Batt knows how to craft language.  His writing and observations about minute details in Salt Lake could be biting and funny at the same time.  Many of the chapters in his book stood out as individual short stories that I wanted to hang onto.  When he talked about searching for the perfect home in the valley, getting help at the local hardware store, or trends in construction he noticed in their home from 50 years ago, his storytelling really was so keen and spot on that I could hardly put the book down.  I'm not sure how he managed to make all of that so entertaining, but he really did.  I loved the details about ripping up the flooring to find lovely hard wood floors underneath that was riddled with nails from the laminate they had covered it with.  A nightmare that anyone who has restored an old home might recognize.  It was those details that made the story sing.

One strange part of the story that I didn't connect with was his detour into his grandfather's life.  That sounds odd, considering families generally shape a person's life and add interest to a story, however, I kept feeling like it was distracting from the story at hand.  I wanted the story to center more on his relationship with his wife and how she factored into this home they were working on.  Instead, the grandfather and family outside of Utah kept having this continued impact on the story that turned it into a type of "finding himself" journey that I hadn't expected.  Maybe that was the point, that they had been impacting this remodel more than anything else?  Since this was a true story, the author's family might have played just as much of a role in this remodel and in his marriage as anything else?  I simply felt my own curiosity pulling me back to his home and life he had "built" here in Salt Lake.  

The writing in this book was really top notch.  Certain sentences caught my attention, and I found myself rereading them,  and then marking them so that I could come back to them later on.  While I could understand the inclusion of the author's family, I would have liked more about his marriage that was started out in the beginning and in the title.  Overall though, a very interesting book with some great writing.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Blatherings: Let the Holidays & Reading Begin!

Yes, I am one happy girl today.  My holidays have officially begun, and I have a STACK of books to read! *Insert Jazz Hands Here*  Yes, a STACK! In fact, I listened to The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig (#10 in the series) yesterday while I was doing laundry and some massively ignored house work.  Talk about a nice introduction to the weeks ahead.

Okay, so I wish I could say that I don't have grading over the break, but I do.  Not the normal load that I have had in the past, and at least I have two weeks to pick away at it, and not just a millisecond or my bedtime to do it all.  I'm ready for sleep and plenty of reading.  I'm still not sure why this year is kicking my butt, but it is, and I just have to keep at it until I have breaks where I can collapse into a heap of fatigue.  Sounds delightful and cheery of me to share, doesn't it?  There is no Scroogery going on here!  There is only happy, good will!

Now, do I really have a "Top of" list for 2013???  That's the next thing I have to put my brain to this week.  Maybe I'll read something fantastic that I can add to the list.

What about you?  Have you read anything great so far that you know you'll add to the list? And, what will you be reading over this holiday break?

By the way, you really should check out Neil Gaiman reading A Christmas Carol at The New York Public Library in the link below.  It really made my day to get a little of that holiday cheer.  His reading starts at about minute 11:00.  Enjoy!


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Review: Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan

Synopsis:  Issy Randal grew up around her grandpa's bakery, where he understood the value of great-tasting baked goods and drawing in the community.  As an adult, Issy has been laid off, and from her corporate job where she was dating the boss.  She realized that the boss might not have been the "love of her life," as he kicked her to the curb pretty quickly after she left the job. 

With her time off and a bit of unemployment rolling in, she took the plunge and opened up a bakery, hoping to finally put her skills and talents to use.  With her new bakery, she found a new host of friends, a new neighborhood, and a host of money problems that only her cute, single banker could hopefully help her out with.

Review:  This is quintessentially a story about remaking one's life from a real low point and having faith in a dream unrealized.  Issy Randal is a young woman who grew up around her grandfather's bakery, where he pulled together a community after the war with his sweet treats.  Now, Issy was trying to get her grandfather to help her pull her own life together after losing her job, by remembering his recipes and giving her advice on how best to run a bakery of her own.

While the story is really about Issy and how she pulls together her life, I liked the back story with her grandfather.  There is the beginning of the novel when Issy loses her job (trust me, I'm not giving anything away there) that we are introduced to her boss and boyfriend, who really crushes her self confidence.  I hated to see how she allowed this one guy to break her!  It was so much better to watch the recipes and people she met through the bakery to transform her life, which is essentially what the real purpose of the book ends up being about.

Each chapter features a sweet treat and recipe, which then also follows another step in Issy's life.  Getting the bakery isn't an easy transition, as we can imagine.  Luckily--and ironically enough--Issy's banker is a nice, young single guy who takes a chance on her, but who also has his own interesting back story.  He finds Issy's sweet treats and story very endearing and wants to believe that she can make it, but wonders if she can really beat the odds.

On the whole, I found the story to be a quick and easy read.  There were sections of the book near the middle that lagged a bit, and where I did feel that I knew what was going to happen, but I can't say that this dissuaded me from finishing the story.   While I found Issy likable, I also couldn't completely relate to her in other ways.  She was a bit gullible and vulnerable, which is how the range of characters should be--as varied as there are people in the world, so I went with it. 

The recipes are sweet and made me wish I could bake a little better.  The story is a tad predictable, but still generous and giving.  I just always wish that I lived a little bit closer to a bakery or could read IN a bakery while reading a book like this!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Blog Tour Stop & Giveaway: In Love Again by Megan Mulry

Last week I posted a review on Megan Mulry's third in the Unruly Royal series, In Love Again.  Book three is a great "second chance" love story and adds a nice twist to the previous stories, with this book being told from the perspective of the royal (although, I can't say that seems to throw things off much in this case).

Here's a quick blurb about In Love Again:  


The Marchioness of Wick is about to get a second chance at life...whether she wants it or not. After twenty years in a loveless marriage to a duplicitous British aristocrat, Claire Heyworth Barnes finds herself broke and alone. Encouraged by her dynamic American sisters-in-law, the shy royal decides to start over in New York City. After landing a job with an interior designer, Claire reconnects with the first-and only-man she ever loved, Dr. Ben Hayek. Can they build a new love from an old flame? Or will a bitter past and a complicated future stand in their way?

Today, I'm excited to welcome Megan Mulry to my blog for a chat about her newest book!

When you started writing these books, did you anticipate writing about a different person in the family, their royal, and picture their individual stories?


 Yes, when I first sat down to write Bronte (A ROYAL PAIN), I knew I wanted to write a book about each member of the British Heyworth Family and the American they fall in love with. I don't really plot, but focus much more on character development (What type of person is this? How will they react in this type of stressful situation?) and then once I've got their personalities sorted I throw them together and let the story unfold. (Then lots of revisions and edits!) So I guess I picture them as people more than I picture their stories, if that makes sense.

Claire was an interesting mix of aloofness and vulnerability.  I really liked that Claire is a little older and with a little more life experience than some of the our younger characters.  Do you think that older characters, like Claire, deal with different emotional issues than younger characters (in terms of romance)?


Yes, but I think it's more than that. This book is different because Claire is different: whether I had told the story as an NA (New Adult) when she was 17 or as it is now, with her 38, it would have had the same tone. I thought about this question a lot and it gave me a sort of epiphany. I realize that each one of my books--even though they take place in the same fictional world and are told in third-person by the same narrator--ends up reflecting and projecting the characteristics and personality of the heroine. A ROYAL PAIN is neurotic and ambitious and eager, just like Bronte is. IF THE SHOE FITS is sparkly and young and bold, like Sarah James. IN LOVE AGAIN is softer--meditative and tender--just like Claire. I think my books are so character driven that it would be impossible for me to tease out the heroine's perspective from the actual telling of the story. (R IS FOR REBEL, my February release about Abigail Heyworth, further proves this point. She is going through some major soul-searching and her story totally reflects that.)

Benjamin is a dream.  I really loved that he remembered her all those years from when they first met.  He also seemed so incredibly vulnerable and scared of her, which was such a crazy combination.  How did you develop Benjamin?  Any fun tidbits about him?


 *sigh* I loved him too. Writing an older hero presented some different challenges. I wanted him to be established, to have built a good life, otherwise I don't think he would appeal to the heroine. But he also had to have lost sight of his dreams along the way (wanting children and a strong family life), in order to give him so much vulnerability. I have a few friends who really wanted children and for one reason or another never had them. I think this is a really universal feeling of regret and it just sort of came into my mind (and I think my fabulous editor Lisa Dunick may have pointed it out). Ben needed more motivation than just being divorced and lonely. (For the record, I also have a few friends who are childless by choice and perfectly happy about it…always feel like they deserve a mention too!) In terms of fun tidbits, about a year and a half ago, I had emergency oral surgery and I went to a new dentist and he was such a lifesaver. (And handsome!) I decided then and there to make my next hero a dentist. Which was also a fun challenge because for some reason lots of people think, "Dentist? How are you going to make a dentist sexy?" (Uh…in the usual way, lol.)

Yes, I think you completely succeeded in making Ben, the dentist, sexy!  :)

 It was nice to see Claire connect with her daughter, and Benjamin be a role in her life as well.  Do you think that the daughter will appear in later novels down the road now that she is more present in her mother's life?

 Lydia, Oh Lydia! I am still very much on the fence about writing Lydia's story. I would love to write an interracial romance with her and Alistair; I think we need WAY more representations of interracial relationships in fiction and in all media for that matter. The thing that is holding me back is my fear that Lydia's story will be very bitter--with her history of drug abuse and probably other forms of self-abuse. Yes, she's on the mend, but I suspect she's going to be careless and mean to Alistair and I just don't know if I have the heart to go through that. He can handle her, of course. And recovering drug addicts totally deserve their HEA, so… Ugh! See? Can you hear me developing their characters as I write this? This is always how it happens! Basically, I'm afraid Lydia's book could cross a line into depicting the horrors of drug abuse that I'm not sure I am ready to cross just yet.

I want to thank Megan Mulry so much for stopping by today and for chatting with me about her newest release! 


Now for a little giveaway:  

Tell me about your first love!  Do you have a first love, and do you know what happened to them?  Would you ever want to meet back up with them?  Respond to this fun little question by Monday, December 9th by midnight (MST) with your response and email address for the chance to win one kindle ebook copy of In Love Again, U.S. only.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

After Holiday Sunday Blatherings

What a Thanksgiving Break!  I can't believe it has come and gone, and I have so much and so LITTLE to show for it.  *sigh*  (Meaning, I still have an 8" stack of papers that I didn't touch...)

This week was amazing.  Sleep ruled the roost around here, which should always top the list over a holiday break.  I actually started my break a little early by taking my Pop. Lit. students to see Catching Fire on Tuesday, since we read it as a class this semester.  What a fun way to start the break!  I always stress myself out--unnecessarily--about all the little details that come with managing money, students, and lesson plans, but it turned out great and the movie was really good.  I have to say that although the movie left out some of the scenes that I thought were interesting in the story, that the movie was pretty true to the novel and well done.  I'm eager to see how they roll out the last two films in the franchise.

For the break, I had a major list of things I needed to take care of, so I spent much of Wednesday running errands and going to doctor appointments.  I only mention it because it has been something I've shared here before.  I went to see my doctor again about these crazy migraines I fight on a continued basis.  I started taking a new medication called Topomax that has had a pretty negative impact on my memory.  Listen, I don't have brain cells to sacrifice!  As far as headaches and migraines go, it's a miracle drug, but I find myself forgetting basic language, which is NOT okay.  I'm an English teacher, so not having access to basic language can be a huge issue.  It's not really forgetting things, it's having this strange lack of access to certain language.  Ugh.  Not a fun trade off.  I'm going to lower the dose a bit and see if that helps the big "dope" factor (as I call it), but hope that the crippling migraines don't come back.  I know that many of you who blog and are big readers also suffer from migraines.  Have any of you had this issue?

Anyway, the rest of the break has been really nice.  My mother has been under the weather off and on, but other than that, it has been pretty laid back and relaxing.  I've really only managed to get through a couple of novels, which is not great for me, but will work for now.  We also went to see About Time, which was by the creators of Love Actually.  I thought it was SO good and would recommend it to all of my friends, 100%.  If you want a feel-good movie that will have you thinking about what matters, day to day, this was that movie.  It is rated R, which I know matters to some of my readers, so you would want to keep that in mind.  I thought the story between the father and son was really touching and had me crying by the end of the film, which was pretty surprising.  Overall, it was a touching film about taking advantage of each and every day, which carried so much more depth than the romantic comedy that we thought we were walking into. 

Although my list of reading accomplished over the break was pretty small, I'm happy with what I got through.  Here's what I read:

What books or movies did you get through over the Thanksgiving Break?  Or, what are you finishing up that you got started?