Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Review: "Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek" by Maya Van Wagenen

"Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek" by Maya Van Wagenen
First published in 2014
My rating: 3.5 out of 5

(image source)

"Popular" is a memoir written by teenaged Maya about a grand experiment she conducted her 8th grade year during which she followed advice from a 1950s guide to becoming popular. Maya is shy, nerdy, frequently picked on and identifies herself as a social outcast. Betty Cornell's book promises to show her the way way to popularity, but can advice for teens given so many decades ago still be relevant?

Maya answers with a resounding "yes" -- as her year of living by the words and wisdom of Betty Cornell force her to come out of her shell, try new things and meet new people. It's a year full of love, learning, tears and girdle marks, but Maya comes out of it with a whole new definition of what it means to be popular:

"Maybe real popularity comes from when you take time to listen to someone else. When you actually care about them."

Hang on, did I just write "girdle marks" in the above paragraph? Indeed I did! Maya apparently felt that for the experiment to be effective, she had to follow Betty's word's to a T -- and that included wearing '50s-style clothes, hair and make-up. Her outfits were so awkward and conservative that her teachers worried she was either homeless or from one of "those" religions! And, despite Maya's bravery in going to school dressed like a grandmother, this sort of annoyed me a little bit. Certainly there are plenty of very good points to be drawn from Betty's suggestions about dress and grooming -- but I couldn't fathom why Maya wouldn't take that advice and apply it to modern clothes that she would actually enjoy wearing?!

My minor confusion aside, I liked "Popular" fairly well. Maya is a sweet, likeable girl and she's a pretty good writer for being just 15. Her book has some really nice messages about being kind to others, opening yourself up, taking risks (like sitting down at the super-popular kids' lunch table!) and being confident. The themes were reminiscent of R.J. Palacio's "Wonder" -- and just like in that book, my heart broke for Maya every time she was teased or taunted. Why can't we all just be a little nicer to each other? Maybe books like "Popular" and "Wonder" will help all of us -- both young and old -- to think twice about how we treat our fellow humans.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Top 10 Books On My Fall To-Read List

Hello and welcome to Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is one of my favorites -- the top 10 books I'm hoping to read this fall. These lists are fun to compile and get me excited about all the awesome reading I have to look forward to!

I did stunningly well with my summer TBR list. I listed 16 titles in that post and have read 12 of them, with a 13th currently checked out from the library. I really enjoyed most of the books and am glad to have checked the rest off my list. Some favorites from the summer are "The Martian" by Andy Weir (my review), "One Plus One" by Jojo Moyes (my review), and "The Book of Life" by Deborah Harkness, the conclusion to her superb All Souls trilogy.

And without further ado, here's my fall list. Let's hope I do just as well with this one!

From the Goodreads summary:
In this thrilling new addition to the New York Times bestselling series, Lady Emily travels to Paris where she struggles to unmask a murderer amid a case of assumed identities and shadowy figures.

I do so love Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily series. If you like mysteries and historical fiction, check these books out!

From the Goodreads summary:
A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

I am FINALLY going to make it a point to read this book. I'm a Neil Gaiman virgin and I need to see what all the fuss is about!

From the Goodreads summary:
After trying to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, social worker Pete Snow comes face to face with the boy's profoundly disturbed father, Jeremiah. With courage and caution, Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from this paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times.

But as Pete's own family spins out of control, Pearl's activities spark the full-blown interest of the F.B.I., putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed.

I had hoped to read "Fourth of July Creek" over the summer and didn't get around to it. I've got it on hold at the library, though, so I will definitely be reading it this fall. I must say, I absolutely love the title and cover, and the plot sounds quite gripping!

From the Goodreads summary:
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class.

When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite. But they don't laugh.

Melanie is a very special girl.
This book sounds like it'll be a new and different take on the zombie theme.
From the Goodreads summary:
When Tate Collins meets airline pilot Miles Archer, she knows it isn’t love at first sight. They wouldn’t even go so far as to consider themselves friends. The only thing Tate and Miles have in common is an undeniable mutual attraction. Once their desires are out in the open, they realize they have the perfect set-up. He doesn’t want love, she doesn’t have time for love, so that just leaves the sex. Their arrangement could be surprisingly seamless, as long as Tate can stick to the only two rules Miles has for her.

Never ask about the past.
Don’t expect a future.

They think they can handle it, but realize almost immediately they can’t handle it at all.
"Ugly Love" will be my first foray into the "new adult" genre. It has a ridiculously high rating on Goodreads -- so I'm hoping I'll love it!

From the Goodreads summary:
Sixteen-year-old Leilani loves surfing and her home in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. But she's an outsider -- half white, half Hawaiian, and an epileptic.

While Lei and her father are on a visit to Oahu, a global disaster strikes. Technology and power fail, Hawaii is cut off from the world, and the islands revert to traditional ways of survival. As Lei and her dad embark on a nightmarish journey across the islands to reach home and family, she learns that her epilepsy and her deep connection to Hawaii could be keys to ending the crisis before it becomes worse than anyone can imagine.

Well, there's no way I could resist a disaster novel set in Hawaii! When we lived there, my husband urged me to write just such a book. I guess someone's beaten me to the punch! I have this checked out from the library so I'll be reading it soon.

From the Goodreads summary:
A vividly original literary novel based on the astounding true-life story of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person who learned language and blazed a trail for Helen Keller.

At age two, Laura Bridgman lost four of her five senses to scarlet fever. At age seven, she was taken to Perkins Institute in Boston to determine if a child so terribly afflicted could be taught. At age twelve, Charles Dickens declared her his prime interest for visiting America. And by age twenty, she was considered the nineteenth century's second most famous woman, having mastered language and charmed the world with her brilliance.
This based-in-fact book sounds fascinating! Can you imagine being both blind and deaf?

I'm looking forward to the last book in this series. I found the previous two a bit hard to get through, but of course I have to find out how the adventure concludes!

And some non-fiction!
I'm always saying I'm going to read more non-fiction and then seldom do, but these two titles sound like awesome reads.
From the Goodreads summary:
New York Times bestselling author Hampton Sides returns with a white-knuckle tale of polar exploration and survival in the Gilded Age.

This sounds like the kind of non-fiction tale that reads like a novel -- and that's how I like 'em!

From the Goodreads summary:
From an award-winning, meticulously observant, and masterful writer comes a groundbreaking account of three women deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and how their military service affected their friendship, their personal lives, and their families.
As a woman and a military spouse, I'm totally intrigued by this book. I feel like I should read more military non-fiction, especially since my husband spent six months in Afghanistan and will probably go back to the Middle East at some point in the next few years, and this looks like a great place to start.

And a few more books on my radar:
* "Delicious" by Ruth Reichl
* "A Sudden Light" by Garth Stein (I LOVED "The Art of Racing in the Rain"!)
* "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory" by Caitlin Doughty (sounds morbid but interesting)
* "Blindsighted" by Karin Slaughter (recommended by a co-worker at the library)

Book Review: "Elizabeth is Missing" by Emma Healey

"Elizabeth is Missing" by Emma Healey
First published in 2014
301 pages
My rating: 3.5 out of 5

(image source)

I was instantly intrigued when I first read a blurb for “Elizabeth is Missing,” which basically went like this: Maud, an elderly British woman with Alzheimer’s, has a note in her pocket that reads “Elizabeth is missing” and she will stop at nothing to find out what happened to her friend.

The summaries also use words like “psychological,” “dark” and “mystery” and I figured I was in for a taut, page-turning thriller. But not so fast. The book actually has dual mysteries – Elizabeth’s disappearance in present day, and Maud’s sister Sukey’s disappearance in 1946. And neither mystery is really that shocking or suspenseful. There’s a sort of unexpected twist of fate that ties Maud’s whole story together, but even that didn’t evoke any more of a reaction than, “Huh, that’s interesting.”
However, there’s a whole other part to this novel – one which the author accomplished with far more success. “Elizabeth is Missing” paints a fascinating, heartbreaking, sometimes hard-to-read portrait of what it’s like to live with dementia as well as care for someone suffering from memory loss. It’s painful to watch Maud struggle to think of the word “pencil” or set off on a mission only to forget why she’s at the bus stop five minutes later. And it’s equally heart-wrenching as Maud’s daughter Helen puts on a brave face and is infinitely patient with her mother.
Healey’s writing was pretty darn good and the premise was brilliant, but the execution wasn’t quite there. I actually enjoyed the fact that the central mystery of the novel was Sukey’s vanishing in 1946, rather than Elizabeth's disappearance as the title suggests, and I loved the British post-war atmosphere. But Healey could’ve done a much better job with the mystery – there was really only ever one suspect, and we never completely found out what happened to Sukey. I wanted more suspense, more intrigue, more edge-of-my-seat page-turning.

But “Elizabeth is Missing” was hardly a bad read and I would definitely try another book by Emma Healey (this is her debut). Perhaps if you go into “Elizabeth is Missing” thinking of it as a novel rather than a story of suspense or mystery, you won’t be disappointed like I was.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Knitting FO: Na Pali Coast Cowl

Na Pali Coast Cowl
Pattern: Rayures
My Ravelry project page
Yarn: various fingering weight yarn
Digging through my stash to find yarn for this amazing striped cowl, I ended up with a pile of blues, greens and neutrals. The tranquil colors brought to mind the ocean, and I immediately knew I'd name my cowl after something from our three years in Hawaii. Kauai's 11-mile Na Pali Coast is probably the most stunning place I've ever been, and I think the name fits the cowl just right.
I loved watching my cowl come together. The stripes are so cheerful and fun! The cowl is knit in one long tube and then grafted together using Kitchener stitch. It made great TV/audiobook knitting and was easy and relaxing. I was a bit nervous about grafting in the round, but it was actually no harder than normal Kitchener stitch. I found a fantastic YouTube tutorial here.
Ahhh, beautiful Kauai. More pictures from our trips to Kauai can be seen here, here, and here.
I made a few slight modifications, mainly adding an extra stripe of each color to every section for added length. I've written all the project details on my Ravelry project page.

I'm absolutely thrilled with my gorgeous striped cowl. The colors work so well together and the cowl is versatile, soft, cozy and happy. It will definitely brighten up Ohio's dreary winter days... maybe if I wish hard enough, it'll magically transport me to its namesake Kauai!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Chicago/Lollapalooza 2014: Days 1-2

Well, it's about time that I finally post these pictures of our awesome weekend in Chicago for the Lollapalooza music festival at the beginning of August. What an amazing, crazy, jam-packed time we had! I was muddy, exhausted and forever ruined for the radio (and port-a-potties, gak!) after three days at Lolla. We saw at least part of 17 shows and they were pretty much all fantastic.

We went with my 20-year-old brother, Andy, and we were definitely on the older end of the crowd. It was funny to keep thinking "kids these days!" -- only to remember that we were young and crazy not all that long ago. Although we never could get over the horrific return of "high-waisted shorts" and fanny packs (my fingers are crossed that this was just "festival wear" and not actually coming back into fashion). And -- at least to the best of my memory -- we never got so (publically) intoxicated that we had to be strapped onto a special golf cart designed specifically for passed-out, vomit-covered people and carted off to the medical tent. Kids these days! Sigh.

(Here's my post for days 3-4.)

One of things on my must-do list was take a picture with The Bean. It's even cooler in real life!
Underneath The Bean. This is like a page of "Where's Waldo?"! I'm right smack in the middle, about half an inch up.
I just couldn't get over how awesome this sculpture/art installation/giant fun-house mirror/reflective kidney bean was!
Andy and Jarrod imitating the four-armed guy on the Lolla sign.
Our first night we enjoyed a delicious deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnati's. Yummmm!
Two stoic lions guard the Chicago Art Institute.
Visiting the art museum was my favorite part of the entire trip. I'd go back there in a heartbeat. We were pretty rushed for time, and I'd like a chance to just sit and contemplate all the stunning artwork. Here we are with the Seurat painting made (even more) famous by Ferris Bueller.
The Impressionist wing was my favorite. There was an entire room devoted to Claude Monet! Above are his hay stacks.
08-04-14 Lollapalooza1
 Above and below are a few of the gorgeous paintings we saw: Monet, Renoir, Degas, Picasso, Van Gogh... so beautiful. And that sculpture in the upper right is from the 1st century! What do you think the people who made that would say if they could see the city in which their statue sits today?
08-04-14 Lollapalooza2
Andy and me with a lovely Georgia O'Keefe. I like how our outfit perfectly coordinate with the painting!
We had Chicago-style hot dogs for lunch. Again, yummmm!
And then we headed into Lolla for our first day of craziness. Above is CHVRCHES, the second show we caught. (The first was the tail-end of Iggy Azalea.) Note the floral headbands, the '90s shorts and the balloons.
My current favorite band, Broken Bells.
And Eminem!!! This was my favorite Lollapalooza show -- by far the best for crowd energy. And he was amazing. And Rihanna was there!

Book Review: "Landline" by Rainbow Rowell

"Landline" by Rainbow Rowell
First published in 2014
308 pages
My rating: 4 out of 5

(image source)

By now, pretty much everyone has heard of the unforgettably-named Rainbow Rowell and her hit YA novel, "Eleanor and Park." I plan to read "E and P" eventually, but since I tend not to always like YA I was excited about Rowell's first adult novel, "Landline."

I admit to being a bit skeptical going in -- sometimes it seems like I almost set out to dislike books that have been super-hyped (especially YA) and I'm ready to seek out every little flaw, plus I didn't initially love our main character -- but I ended up really enjoying this fun, light book about marriage, family, love, priorities and second chances -- oh yeah, and "a magic fucking phone."

After over a decade, Georgie's marriage is falling apart. She loves her husband, Neal, and two daughters infinitely, but her job as a TV show writer keeps her insanely busy. Things between Georgie and Neal come to a head just before Christmas, when the family is supposed to head to Omaha to spend the holiday with Neal's family. Georgie and her writing partner and best friend Seth have just gotten the opportunity they've been waiting years for -- the chance to write their own show -- and Georgie opts out of Christmas in Omaha to work. Neal and the kids leave for Omaha without her -- and Neal may or may not be leaving Georgie for good.

Georgie and Neal's story is told in three parts: the present, when Neal is in Omaha refusing to answer his phone; the past, when Neal and Georgie meet in college; and the time of the miraculous yellow rotary phone in Georgie's childhood bedroom, on which -- impossible as it may seem -- she can apparently talk to Neal in December of 1998, another critical point in their relationship.

I particularly liked the parts of the book detailing the beginning of Georgie and Neal's relationship. I loved them both as young, fresh college students and I enjoyed the build-up of romantic tension. But the scenes with the "landline" are the ones from which the moral of the story come, and I thought the book had a nice little message about what it takes to make a marriage work.

I also liked that "Landline" is definitely an adult book -- and Rowell even sprinkled in some pop culture references for twenty- and thirtysomethings. All that said, it was not a perfect book. The writing was decent, the characters were pretty well-drawn (although I didn't like Georgie's mom), and it tackled the serious topic of a failing marriage... but there was something lacking for me. I'm not sure what would've made me give it 5 stars -- maybe a bit more depth? maybe a bit less predictability? maybe I had a problem with Georgie's TV scriptwriter job? -- but it needed just a little something else. It's definitely worth a chance, though. Save it for a time when you want something light and chick-lit-y with a happy ending.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Review: "One Plus One" by Jojo Moyes

"One Plus One" by Jojo Moyes
First published in 2014
384 pages
My rating: 4 out of 5
(image source)

While Jojo Moyes' latest book "One Plus One" wasn't as fantastic as her hit novel/ugly-cry-inducer "Me Before You," it was a fun, laugh-out-loud romantic romp that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Jess is a money-scraping, two-job-working single mom caring for a couple of rather unique kids -- and somehow she's still able to be the ultimate optimist, perpetually looking on the bright side and teaching her kids that good things happen to good people.

Ed is a computer geek being investigated for insider trading. He's just about hit rock bottom when he stops to help his cleaning lady -- Jess -- on the side of the road. Jess is desperate to get her daughter to a Math Olympiad, and for reasons he can barely begin to comprehend, Ed offers to drive the quirky family -- humongous dog and all -- from England to Scotland.

Of course, the road trip turns out to be even more of an endeavor than Ed expected and hilarity ensues. But something else happens too, while the family is crammed into Ed's no-longer-pristine Audi -- both Ed and Jess realize they feel lighter, happier and more free than they have in recent memory. They're from totally different worlds and are each battling their own issues -- but perhaps they each have what the other needs.

All the characters -- hardworking Jess, hapless Ed, math genius Tanzie, bullied and make-up-wearing Nicky, and gigantic and noxious canine Norman -- are incredibly easy to love. This was a sweet and fun read with heart. Sure, it was pretty freaking predictable. But sometimes you just need to read an easy book that will make you happy, and "One Plus One" fits that bill.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Quick and Easy Fall Wreath With Burlap

I went to JoAnn to browse around a bit over Labor Day weekend because I had a good coupon, and I snagged a cheap square wire wreath form. I figured I'd turn it into a festive fall door decoration since I've had my current fall wreath since college and it's looking a bit ragged.

I already had a roll of burlap, which I thought would lend the perfect autumnal background for my square canvas. I knew I wanted something hanging down inside the frame, and I found those awesome acorns at Michael's. I really like the branch decorations (also from Michael's) because they have beads as well as those little styrofoam berries. I topped it off with a nice fall bow and was pretty thrilled with the result! The entire thing took all of 10 minutes to assemble. I spent far more time than that at Michael's debating about what accoutrements I wanted to buy for the wreath!
I like the look of the burlap wrapped around the frame, and I was thinking it'd be easy to make a mummy wreath for Halloween this way, using a roll of gauze instead of burlap, and maybe some googly eyes. Perhaps that'll be my next project!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Book Review: "We Were Liars" by E. Lockhart

"We Were Liars" by E. Lockhart
First published in 2014
240 pages
My rating: 2 out of 5

(image source)

"We Were Liars" was yet another in a line of pretty popular YA books that just didn't do it for me. It was fine, it was alright, but I just cannot see what all the fuss is about.

The few reviews I've read referenced the mind-blowing twist at the end... but I found the twist to be neither huge nor unexpected. I was hoping the big reveal would give some meaning to an otherwise frail plot, but no such luck. In the end, I wasn't quite sure what the point of the book was.

A quick sum-up: Every summer teenager Cadence joins the rest of her blue-blooded family on a private island near Martha's Vineyard. She, two cousins and a friend make up "the liars" (it's never really explained how they earned that nickname) and they spend their days together. But something horrible happens during the summer they're 15; as a coping mechanism, Cadence has developed amnesia and can hardly remember anything about "summer 15" -- and no one will fill her in. Flash forward to summer 17 -- Cadence is back on the island and determined to find answers, and they're even more horrific than she was expecting. (But they were more tame than I was expecting.)

I didn't really like Cadence, with all her whining and naivete. I didn't really like the snobbish, over-dramatic and petty nature of the old-money Sinclair family. I didn't really like the annoying made-up names like Mirren and Taft. I didn't even like Gat, the only down-to-earth character. And I didn't really like the writing when it tried too much to be like Tahereh Mafi, but not as successfully.
it went
All choppy and
Trying too hard to be

On a positive note, though I was mildly disappointed by the ending, Lockhart kept me turning pages to get there. And overall, the writing was decent for a young adult book. But I didn't like it enough to recommend it; you can find far better reading material in the sea of novels out there. For a far more enthralling twist, try "Sharp Objects" by Gillian Flynn, or even the somewhat similar to "We Were Liars" novel "Bittersweet" by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. It's got all the rich snobs, private island summers and dark secrets you could want.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Book Review: "The Martian" by Andy Weir

"The Martian" by Andy Weir
First published in 2014
369 pages
My rating: 4.5 out of 5

(image source)

Detailing the struggle for survival by one astronaut stranded on Mars, this riveting novel is totally different from anything else you'll read this year.

While evacuating from Mars because of a dangerous dust storm, botanist and mechanical engineer Mark Watney is impaled by an antenna and thought dead by his crewmates. By sheer luck, Watney survives the injury -- but when he wakes up he's completely and totally alone on the Red Planet. He has limited food and water, no way to contact NASA and infinitesimal hope for rescue.

But Mark refuses to give up, and with a combination of intelligence, ingenuity, creativity, guts and luck he surmounts obstacle after obstacle. I guarantee you'll be rooting for Mark all the way. Not only is he ridiculously smart, he's also funny, sarcastic and self-deprecating -- one of the most easy-to-like main characters I've encountered in a long while.

The tale is told both through Watney's journal entries and from the perspectives of a handful of NASA employees working day and night to put together a rescue plan and Mark's fellow astronauts from the Ares 3 mission.

The only reason I didn't give "The Martian" a full 5 stars is because it can be a tad too science-y at times for a regular joe reader who has only minimal knowledge of chemistry, physics and space travel. But, by the same token, I learned a hell of a lot from "The Martian" while being wholly entertained.

I totally enjoyed the book, but the whole time I was reading I kept thinking about what an awesome movie it'd make. I guess I wasn't the only one, because it's slated to come to the big screen in November 2015!

I highly recommend picking up this survivalist/space thriller. It's an easy and unique read that'll keep you turning pages, anxious to learn the fate of your favorite Martian astronaut.

Top 10 Book Characters Who'd Sit At My High School Lunch Table

It's already September! It's hard to believe fall -- with its pumpkins and boots and raking and apple everything -- is nearly upon us! As an homage to back-to-school, this week's Top Ten Tuesday by The Broke and the Bookish is the top 10 book characters who would be sitting at my lunch table.

At first I was tempted to just select all my favorite characters, regardless of age. But then, after reminiscing of my own high school lunch table, I decided to stick with mostly teenage protagonists. They're pretty much all the kinds of people I'd like to hang out with -- smart and/or easy to like and funny. Here's what I came up with... will we all get along? Probably not!
1. Hermione Granger: She'd certainly up the intelligence quotient at our table! I'd hand out S.P.E.W. badges with her any day.
2. Luna Lovegood: Every lunch table needs someone a little kooky and eclectic!

3. Rudy Steiner: The affable, charming, athletic yellow-haired boy would put everyone at ease.

4. Bee Fox: Bright and mature for her age. And she convinces her parents to take her on a cruise to Antarctica! I could see her joining me on the school newspaper.

5. Holden Caulfield: Philosophical and angsty. He'd always call us out when we started acting "phony"!

6. Grover: Who wouldn't want a funny satyr for a pal? As a bonus, you'd never have to dump your leftovers and trash because Grover would eat it all!

7. Stephanie Plum: Funny, smart and a little bit ditzy. We could commiserate about the curse of curly hair and talk about the cute boys we had crushes on.

8. Mary Russell: At 15, Mary Russell becomes Sherlock Holmes's protegee. She's terrifically smart and gutsy, and she eschews the social customs of 1915 Britain. She'd certainly tell it like it is! I could see her being good friends with Hermione and Holden.
9. Via Pullman: Of the many points of view in "Wonder," I most enjoyed Via's. I definitely think we could be friends.
10. Mark Watney: Super-smart, funny, sarcastic and likely adorably nerdy as a teenager. Oh yeah, and future astronaut. Not a bad friend to have (especially if he'd help me with my science and math homework!).

Favorite teacher -- Ms. Valerie Frizzle: Who wouldn't want to ride on the Magic School Bus!?
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