December Wrap-Up

December was a fun, relaxed reading month for me — school let out for the semester, and I completely shirked all responsibilities (besides mothering and the occasional meal prep) in favor of reading feverishly. I wrapped up the month with a total of eleven reads — middle grades fiction, thrillers, fantasy, romance, historical fiction, rural noir, and an audiobook to boot.

While I enjoyed reading copious amounts of fiction, one drawback is that I didn’t post many reviews. (Oops.) For the sake of brevity, here’s a two-sentence review on each title I read in December! (Listed in no particular order.)

  1. Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger. Rural noir reimagining of Hamlet, filled with dark, brooding vibes as one teenage boy seeks to find — and bring to justice — his father’s murderer. An exploration of grief and loss as much as a portrayal of our devotion to family-shared histories. ⭐️⭐️⭐️💫
  2. One Day in December by Josie Silver. A debut novel highly reminiscent of books-turned-films One Day and Something Borrowed. Classified as romance or a rather drawn-out love story, this novel wasn’t for me — I didn’t like the characters, and that was enough to turn me off the story completely. ⭐️⭐️img_7839-1
  3. Voyager (Outlander book 3) by Diana Gabaldon. This third installment in the Outlander series is much more fast-paced than the second novel, and brings with it a flood of emotions as Jamie and Claire are reunited (I’d say “spoiler” here, but I think we can all agree that a series with 10 novels obviously has to have the two reuniting at some point). Rife with that overdramatic penchant for danger and conflict I’ve come to know and love in Gabaldon’s tomes, Voyager satisfies (and infuriates, a time or two,) right up to the last page. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  4. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. This fantasy novel — first in its trilogy — features a Russian setting and all kinds of Russian folklore. It feels like a dark, more human fairytale than its Disney counterparts, and I loved the complex feelings and desires of the major characters — both good and bad. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  5. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. I really only need a few words to sum up this mind-bender: WTF, holy shit, WOW. Reid has proven himself a master of brevity and psychological horror, and I’m just going to keep twiddling my thumbs anxiously until he releases another work. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  6. The Train of Lost Things by Ammi-Joan Pacquette. Middle-grades fantasy work featuring a young boy determined to save his dying father by retrieving a lost jacket the two share a bond over. Characterization seemed a bit off and voices were hard to place age-wise, but the themes of grief and loss could be a great tool for young ones struggling to cope with their own grief. ⭐️⭐️💫
  7. The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston. A witchy tale set in Wales, featuring a young bride who hasn’t spoken since she was a child and her new husband who is determined to recover from the loss of his first wife. The setting is vivid and drew me in, but hot-and-cold main characters were irritating. ⭐️⭐️💫img_7967
  8. Freefall by Jessica Barry. This thriller, set to release in a few days, features a young 
    woman who survives the crash of her wealthy fiance’s private plane — and her subsequent attempts to remain “unfound” in the Rocky Mountains. While I was intrigued enough to continue reading and discover why the woman was afraid of being found, the truth seemed anticlimactic. ⭐️⭐️⭐️img_8262
  9. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. A work of fantasy based in 1890s New York City, this novel follows the magical beings Chava — a golem, or human made ofclay — and Ahmad — a desert being that is a “spark of fire” but has been trapped in the form of a man. This fairytale, with roots in Syrian folklore, is an utterly magical and beautiful story that I savored up to the last word. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️img_7998
  10. The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser. A sweet, entertaining read about 5 siblings — aged 4.5-12 — who are on a mission to change their landlord’s mind about renewing their lease. The book covers a range of worthy topics, from compassion and generosity to selflessness and the inevitability of change. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  11. The Ragged Edge of Night by Olivia Hawker. A compelling and different story about resistance during WWII, featuring a former friar who becomes a husband and father after responding to the personal ad of a widower in need of someone to provide. A bit dragging at times, but ultimately a beautiful story made even more sweet by its ties to reality: the main character is based on the author’s husband’s grandfather. ⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Whew! December was a huge month for me, reading-wise, and while I enjoyed shirking reality for a while, I know that January will be far less lucrative in terms of numbers — and that’s okay. Overall, I greatly enjoyed many of the books I read last month, and though I didn’t conduct any in-depth analysis on any of the titles, I can see myself recommending several of these works to friends and family members in search of their next great read.

Have you read any of these works? If so, what did you think of them?

Happy reading, friends!

Review: The Snow Child

“‘There,’ he said. He stepped back. Sculpted in the white snow were perfect, lovely eyes, a nose, and small, white lips. She even thought she could see cheekbones and a little chin. . . . As they stood together, the snow fell heavier and faster, making it difficult to see more than a few feet. ‘She needs some hair,’ he said. ‘Oh, I’ve thought of something, too.’ Jack went toward the barn, Mabel to the cabin. ‘Here they are,’ she called from across the yard when she came back out. ‘Mittens and a scarf for the little girl.’ He returned with a bundle of yellow grass from near the barn. He stuck individual strands into the snow, creating wild, yellow hair, and she wrapped the scarf around its neck and placed the mittens on the ends of the birch branches. . . .”

Nestled in among the many wonderful books I had lined up for this month was a title that seemed ideal for Christmastime and those blustery winter days: The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. (Side note: I’m obsessed with the author’s name. It’s so lyrical and marvelous! Good job, parents.) It’s been years since we’ve had a white Christmas in Kansas — truly, I can’t remember the last — and I was craving the magic of snow one way or another. This novel did not disappoint.

Mabel and Jack are newcomers to the Alaskan frontier in the 1920s. Middle-aged and devastated by their inability to have a child, they decide to move from all they know “Back East” and start anew without the burden of neighbors, family, and friends whose lives are rich with children. Alaska seems the perfect place to isolate themselves, and it is; at least, until Mabel realizes that her winters will be one long darkness after another for days on end, and her summers filled with an unceasing sunshine that seems to mock her quiet unhappiness. Although the couple is no stranger to struggle, Jack quickly finds his farming skills are no match for the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness and the couple is faced with a bleak predicament: they must clear the land and produce a bountiful crop in the coming summer, or tuck tail and head home. As winter looms closer and money runs out, Jack and Mabel realize fears they hadn’t even considered possible before.

While the two face increasingly dire circumstances, their relationship (unsurprisingly) grows more and more strained. But with the first snow of winter, the magic of fresh beginnings also descends, leading Mabel and Jack to build a snow child that somehow seems to hold all the hopes and tenderness they’ve reserved for their own child throughout the many years. In the morning, the snow child is gone — but a mysterious little girl and her fox roam the woods nearby, and Mabel is inclined to entertain some very fantastic possibilities.

Based on the Russian fairytale “Snegurochka,” The Snow Child is a luminous story of hope, magic, and the unfailing nature of parental love. I adored the characters developed by Ivey, particularly Faina, whose being remained pure and otherworldly throughout the story’s unraveling.

The Good Great: The storyline is tight, with no gaping plot holes or aimless ramblings. Characters are attentively crafted and unique — no overlap in this novel! A prevailing sense of wonder hovers throughout the novel. There’s truly no other way to put it: this book was magical. Not in a fantasy/Harry Potter sort of way; rather, in the subtly wonderful way of children’s dreams about woodland fairies and Santa’s elves.

The Bad: No complaints on my end. At times, I felt like the build up was becoming tedious — I wanted to know, dammit — but by the end of the novel, I was convinced the entire thing was flawless.

The Verdict: 5 stars! The Snow Child is officially one of my new favorites of all time, and I wholly intend to reread this beauty in winters to come. I can’t recommend this sweet, endearing tale enough.

Review: Final Reads of 2016!

For almost three months, I abstained from reading (and, so it seems, blogging). This wasn’t entirely planned — I was exhausted, bogged down with grading and lesson planning in the thick of the first semester, and entirely uninterested in doing anything in the evening (other than eating and sleeping, of course). When we went on our vacation to Mexico, I was so mentally exhausted from finalizing a major editing project, wrapping up the quarterly publication I edit, and planning for the school days that I’d miss, I couldn’t bring myself to crack one of the three books I’d toted along with me on the expedition.

At first, I felt guilty. Then I was frustrated. And then — I panicked. What if I was burned out on reading altogether? What if I could never bring myself to finish another book again? If you can’t comprehend the fear that these revelations induced, imagine having your dominant arm amputated.

I should have known, though, that something I loved so dearly could never be pushed aside forever. With the advent of Christmas break, my desire to read returned (as did my sanity). Without further ado, I present to you my final reads of 2016:

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman. This book felt like a selection-of-obligation. I’d heard of Gaiman, referenced often by other readers and lovers of spectacular literature, but I’d never picked up one of his works. Each mention of his name made my cheeks burn a little brighter with shame. So, when Book of the Month made The Ocean at the End of the Lane an add-on option, I felt a sense of dutiful satisfaction when I added the book to my cart. And let me tell you — this pick was not at all what I expected. For whatever reason, I thought of Gaiman as some sort of contemporary male Jodi Picoult, a writer of the intense complexities of everyday life. I discovered, to my delight, an author with a knack for vivid prose and a captivating imagination. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a remarkably odd and fantastic work that expands on the childhood of a man who has returned home for a funeral. Readers are jerked into the past, along with the unnamed narrator, and sucked into a dark tale of magic, danger, and other worlds. Although this book doesn’t make my top 10 list for the year, I appreciated the beauty of the words in his novel and the nostalgic feelings the story evoked. Mostly, I have conflicting feelings about the work . . . I really admired the author’s diction, but felt “meh” about the story itself. When I was finished, I was left thinking . . . “Okay. Well. That was odd.” That being said, at right around 200 pages, this curious (and brief) book is worth exploring, if you have any interest at all in adult surrealism and fantasy. Rating: 3.5/5 stars
  2. The Sun is Also a Star – Nicola Yoon. This work of Young Adult fiction is, in a word, delightful. It’s also a bit heart-wrenching, idealistic, charming, and dramatic . . . but mostly, it’s delightful. Yoon writes the delicately entwined tale of Natasha and Daniel, resident New York teenagers facing very undesirable futures. Natasha, an immigrant of Jamaican parents, faces deportation after her family’s illegal status is revealed via some rather unfortunate circumstances. Daniel, son of Korean immigrants and lifelong resident of the city, is heavily burdened by the academic and professional expectations of his parents (who have already been disappointed by their first born). The book takes readers on a fast-paced one-day journey through the city, alternating between Daniel and Natasha’s viewpoints with short, witty “histories” of other characters or significant topics sprinkled throughout. The result? A sweet, hopeful account of love in a world of endless possibilities.  I raced through this engaging read in one day and couldn’t wait to recommend it to several of my high school students. Rating: 4/5 stars
  3. The Mothers – Brit Bennett. This book is everything, friends. Everything. Another Book of the Month selection, The Mothers sat on my shelf for two months during the Great Reading Hiatus of 2016. I finally cracked its spine two days before the new year and a handful of pages into the book, I knew I was in for a treat. Bennett writes the aching narrative of two girls estranged from their mothers — one by death, the other by choice. The unlikely pair, both members of a seaside church in a black community in southern California, develop a close friendship bordering on sisterhood as Nadia searches for reason and safety in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. Aubrey is the perfect companion for Nadia — comforting, seemingly self-assured, and loyal. The pair is destined for lifelong companionship, it seems . . . until one choice and a dark secret forever alter the course of their lives. The plot is heavy with deception, drama, and longing; characters are multifaceted and brilliantly relatable, despite (or because of?) the weight of the circumstances that compose their lives. The Mothers is a richly textured novel that will stir your heart and remain with you for years to come. Rating: 5/5

In short: if you only read one book in 2017, make it The Mothers. You can expect to experience heartbreak, but you certainly won’t know disappointment.