Friday, February 24, 2023

Let's Bust a Recap : Live Your Best Lie

Many moons ago when facebook was just a fledgling student networking site, I was attending a teeny tiny college where everybody knew everybody and we all gossiped—in person!—about everybody's business. One of my fellow coeds was Jessie Bell who is now Jessie Weaver, and exactly one month ago today, her debut novel was published. Live Your Best Lie is a young adult murder-mystery which will keep you guessing right up to the end. 

When Summer Cartwright, famous teen Instagram influencer, turns up dead at her own Halloween party, the suspect pool is immediately narrowed down to four of her so-called friends when a strange post shows up on her Instagram account shining the spotlight directly on them. As the story switches back and forth between their four different points of view, Instagram posts from Summer's page, and flashbacks to different interactions she shared with each of them, the reader is left wondering what dirt Summer had on all of them to give them motive to kill her. But they're not the only ones with reasons to want Summer dead. And when the four of them decide to work together to find more suspects to offer the police, tensions are high and the stakes even higher. 

First of all let me just say: I am a notoriously slow reader. But when I picked up Jessie's book late last Monday night, I could barely put it down until I finished it Wednesday morning. And while, yes, of course I wanted to know who the killer was, what really kept me turning the pages was finding out what secrets Summer was holding over the different people in her life. (And by the way, I did not figure out who the killer was before the actual reveal. And I was trying.)

Secondly, I'll comment on the genre. YA is not one I frequent very often, and this was my first YA murder-mystery. Never have I felt so completely ancient while simultaneously being profoundly grateful not to be growing up in our social media saturated world. When I was the age of the teens in this book, the extent of our internet savvy extended to dial-up, our new Juno email addresses, and chatting with strangers on AIM. Jessie managed to create teens in Live Your Best Lie that felt like real teenagers having real teenage reactions to being suspected of murder, and having those reactions under the very public pressure of social media scrutiny. The fraught, teenage hormones flying around were believable and it stressed me out. The influencer culture described in the book was spot-on and one of the reasons why I quit Instagram myself.

Lastly, would I recommend Live Your Best Lie?

In a heartbeat.

I liked the diverse cast in this book—characters of different ethnicities and characters with disabilities. I was glad to see adults represented well—single moms, blended families, involved and uninvolved parents. The teens in this book weren't little adults running around with total autonomy, and that was refreshing. I appreciated that we weren't subjected to any sexual scenarios. While the book wasn't completely devoid of romance, we didn't have to read about teens sleeping around, even though you could infer the different experience levels of certain characters. 

But I do have a caveat.

While the language in the book was pretty mild and definitely realistic to the way teens talk, there was just enough of it to make me hesitate to recommend this book to actual teenagers. I definitely would have read and loved this book as a teen, and I don't think any teen reading it today would find anything shocking in its pages, no matter how sheltered he or she may be. But the auntie in me wouldn't be able to recommend this book to a teen without a short diatribe against the normalization and perpetuation of using rude language, particularly the casual misuse of God's name. 

Other than that though, this is one to get your hands on and Jessie Weaver is an author to watch. When my turn rolls around in book club, Live Your Best Lie may be the book I end up choosing. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Let's Bust a Recap : Skating Shoes

Skating Shoes was on my 2022 book list, but was one of four books from that list I didn't get around to reading last year. I was intentionally saving it for the end of the year because ice skating evokes all things Christmas-y to me, but between getting sick—twice!—and watching the World Cup, I didn't manage to pick this one up. It ended up being the perfect February read though, and all my thanks to Amy for choosing a book off my 2023 list for book club. 

If you missed out on my Ballet Shoes recap from a couple years ago, pause and go read it real quick. I'll wait. 

Are you back? If you—like me—are not one to follow explicit instructions, the main point is: I have acquired and begun reading Noel Streatfeild's Shoe Books solely on the recommendation of You've Got Mail's Kathleen Kelly

And I'm loving them. 

In Streatfeild's 1951 Skating Shoes, we meet the Johnson family who are barely making ends meet by living off the unwanted produce their Uncle William sends them to sell in the store. Harriet Johnson, our shy little protagonist, has been seriously ill, and her doctor recommends ice skating as a way to strengthen her legs after her long confinement. Her big brother Alec takes up a paper route so they can afford for Harriet to rent her skates, and off she goes to the rink where she ends up befriending Lalla Moore who is destined—according to her Aunt Claudia—to follow in her late father's footsteps and become a champion figure skater. The book follows this unlikely friendship as Lalla helps Harriet on the ice, and Harriet invites lonely Lalla into her happy family. 

Ballet Shoes was delightful, but I loved Skating Shoes. The way the Johnson family interacted in the book was a thing of joy, and watching all the adults in Lalla's life—her nurse, her tutor, her skating coach, even her Aunt Claudia's husband Uncle David—care for her well-being, despite Aunt Claudia's well-intentioned but misplaced goals for Lalla, was heartwarming. I love a book that makes me giggle, and Skating Shoes provides merriment for days. I particularly found the Johnsons' reactions to littlest brother Edward's lovable but insufferable remarks hilarious. This would be a fun read-aloud with the children in your life, and I highly recommend it. 

Yes, Kathleen Kelly, Skating Shoes is completely wonderful, and it's easily my favorite of the two Shoe Books I've read so far, though it's not as widely acclaimed as Ballet Shoes is. We'll see how it holds up once I've read my other two Shoe Books, but I have a hard time believing either of them could top this one. 

Which one next: Theater Shoes or Dancing Shoes?

Monday, February 20, 2023

Let's Bust a Recap : The Emily of New Moon Trilogy

Hello again! How's your 2023 going now that we've got almost two months under our belt? Here in Western North Carolina, it's been cold and grey and dreary and this Florida girl has been feeling a bit blue lately. After finishing up Polk and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea at the beginning of January, I decided to snuggle in with one of my favorite authors and picked up the first Emily of New Moon book. I flew through this charming trilogy the last week of January though I have to admit: Emily of New Moon is my least favorite of Lucy Maud's leading ladies to date. My friend Ereina once told me that if Montgomery's Anne books are the sun, then her Emily books are the moon. After having read them, I'd say that's an apt description and as for me and my house, we'll take the sunshine of Anne Shirley over the moonlight of Emily Byrd Starr. 

Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily's Quest were published in 1923, 1925, and 1927 respectively. At the beginning of Emily of New Moon, we meet eleven year old Emily Byrd Starr who is unceremoniously informed by her hateful (but well-meaning) housekeeper Ellen that her father is going to die any day. Unfortunately, Ellen is telling the truth, and after two glorious last weeks together, Emily is left an orphan. Her mother's people are the proud Murray clan whom Emily has never met because they disowned her mother for eloping with her father. Their pride won't allow them to leave Emily to the care of others, so shortly after her father's death, they descend upon her to decide who will be responsible for her upbringing, and the duty falls to stern Aunt Elizabeth, sweet Aunt Laura, and simple Cousin Jimmy of New Moon. Emily discovers a world of beauty at New Moon and befriends her wild next door neighbor Ilse Burnley, the artistic Teddy Kent, and Perry Miller the hired boy from Stovepipe Town. Throughout the trilogy, we see these children grow into men and women, determined to turn their dreams into reality. Emily in particular is an aspiring authoress, and we get to see her earn the respect of her family as her writing develops and is eventually published. 

Montgomery, as always, brings her signature wit and poetic prose to Emily's story, and I enjoyed it very much, particularly the middle installment, Emily Climbs. Her ability to create a colorful cast of unique characters leaves nothing to be desired. However, there were times when Emily's letters to her father and diary entries—devices Montgomery employed a lot to fill out this narrative—seemed to drag a bit for me, and by the third book, Emily's Quest, I was ready to shake the Murray pride right out of our moody protagonist. But even so, I had a lovely time in New Moon. 

Nevertheless, I won't be the frequent visitor there that I am at Green Gables.

Any recommendations for my next book by Lucy Maud?

Friday, January 20, 2023

Let's Bust a Recap : Watership Down

Watership Down was the last book I read in 2022, and it was a fun one to end the year. It wasn't on my 2022 book list, but I was determined to read it after seeing Sheree's post over at Keeping Up With the Penguins which informed me it would be turning 50. My copy had been sitting on my shelf for a couple years, but hadn't made it onto my book lists so I loosely slated it for November (which is the month it was originally published in 1972) and ended up reading it in December. (I also made this my choice for my book club, but I think I was the only one who read it. Holidays are a hard time to be reading a book for book club. I get it.)

Watership Down came from a story that English author Richard Adams made up on a road trip to entertain his daughters. After complaining about a particularly poor book he was reading aloud to them and emphatically stating he could do better, his daughter laid down the gauntlet saying, "Well, I only wish you would, Daddy, instead of keeping on talking about it." Challenge accepted. After a somewhat rocky road to get published, Watership Down rocketed to success and has become a rather popular enduring work. A modern classic I'd say.

And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

In the story, we follow along with rabbit brothers Hazel and Fiver as they decide they must leave their warren because of some unknown impending danger (Fiver's got the second sight, it seems), and undertake a journey to find a new safe place to start their own warren. Naturally, they try to warn their Chief Rabbit, but he's having none of it and only a few other rabbits decide to take the risk with them and leave. What follows is one close call after another as these bunnies set off to make a new home for themselves. It turns out, shortly after they left their warren, it was razed by evil humans and only two rabbits escaped with their lives. When they finally find a place to build their new warren, they realize if its ever going to be a success, they're going to need to find some female rabbits to do what bunnies do and keep their warren alive and well, so they set off on yet another dangerous mission to find them some honeys. 

Despite seemingly every reader's attempt to cull a deeper meaning out of Watership Down, Adams has insisted that he never meant for it to be some sort of allegory or parable. In his words, "it is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car." How Mark Twain-ish of him. This (anti)defense of his hit novel is in an introduction written by him in one of my editions of the book. So having read that, I took Adams at his word and just read it as an adventure story, and I loved it. Interestingly, both my parents remember being assigned this book in school at which time it would have been a brand new release, and listening to their teachers go on ad nauseam about all the themes and symbolism and what-not. Personally, my main takeaway is that it's cruel and unusual to keep rabbits as pets. 

However you decide to approach it, I'd say Watership Down is one worth giving a read at some point in your life. (And if you do read it: don't miss the Lapine Glossary in the back of the book to interpret the unfamiliar rabbit words!) It was exciting and entertaining, and it kept me turning the pages (despite taking nearly the entire month of December to read because World Cup and then Christmas). I could see myself picking it up again one day, and as far as I'm concerned: that's a good book.

Have you read Watership Down?

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Let's Bust a Recap : Polk

Well, we're still trudging along on this journey to read a biography of each American president. And I'm in what is arguably the black hole of the office: the stretch between #7 Andrew Jackson and #16 Abraham Lincoln. Those eight presidents are largely regarded as some of the worst and most ineffective presidents we've had. Except for #11, Mr. James K. Polk. Though his name has fallen into obscurity, he was not only the most effective out of that group of eight, he's also one of our greatest presidents of all time. And that's not just me talking: historians consistently rank him at #8 or #9 overall.

James Knox Polk was born in 1795 in North Carolina, the first of ten children in a family of farmers. By the time he was 10 years old, his family had moved to Tennessee where James grew up. He attended UNC and after graduating with honors in 1818, he returned to Nashville to study law under his mentor Felix Grundy. He had a short career in law before becoming more heavily involved in state politics. He served in the Tennessee state legislature before being elected to represent his state in Congress in the House of Representatives where he served seven terms, including two terms as Speaker of the House. He then returned home to Tennessee to serve as the state governor where he led a largely ineffectual term. He then fell out of the political limelight, losing the following two elections for governor. 

So how did he ever end up as president? As it turns out, one of Polk's closest friends and mentors was Andrew Jackson, the ever popular 7th president of the United States. At the Democratic Convention of 1844, Martin van Buren was back as the front runner for the Democratic nomination after having lost the last election to William Henry Harrison. However, the question of annexing Texas was the hot topic of the day and Martin van Buren came down on the other side of the question as Jackson: namely, he was against annexing Texas, and Jackson was for it. Polk showed up at the convention ready to throw in his hat for the vice presidential nomination, and ended up walking away the Democratic candidate for the top job in the country instead. After barely eking out a narrow victory over three-time loser Henry Clay, James K. Polk was sworn in as the United States' 11th president. 

Polk set out with four objectives in mind: resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury. He accomplished all four of these objectives within his four-year term and then resolutely refused to run for president again, a promise he had made when he received the nomination. He was the first president that chose of his own will not to run again, and he seemed relieved to leave the presidency behind. He was a workaholic and a micromanager and he threw his entire life into his work. Unfortunately, it took a harsh toll and he died a mere 103 days after leaving office. 

As for his personal life, it seems that not very much is really known. He suffered from ill health pretty much his entire life, starting when he was a teenager. He actually had to have an unmedicated surgery to have urinary stones removed when he was just 16 which likely caused his sterility later in life. He married Sarah Childress on January 1, 1824 and they were rarely separated during the course of their marriage. They seemed to truly love one another, and after her husband died at the age of 53, Sarah remained a widow the rest of her 42 years. 

This biography of Polk's life by Walter R. Borneman was published in 2008, and I thought it was a pretty good one. Borneman does a great job of setting Polk's life in context with his contemporaries, and I felt that while Polk was the main subject of this biography, I was getting little mini-biographies of a lot of his political contemporaries. Sometimes, that information seemed like Borneman was trying to fill out his book, but ultimately it helped me as the reader understand Polk's life and decisions. It was interesting to me as I build toward the Civil War to see names like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and P.G.T. Beauregard dropped into a presidential biography for the first time as all these young men served in Polk's somewhat controversial Mexican-American War. I didn't care for Borneman's tendency to use nicknames for most of the men he was writing about, but that's just a personal preference, I guess. I also wish he would have spent a little more time on Sarah who seemed to be an interesting character in her own right and is considered the greatest First Lady between Dolley Madison and Edith Wilson. 

All things considered, I went into this biography of Polk not really knowing what to expect (remember, he kindof fell out of politics for a minute there), and I've walked away from it now placing Polk in my top three presidents so far alongside Jackson and Washington. He did what he set out to do, and he loved his wife. He practically doubled the size of our country, and he extended the reach of America from sea to shining sea. He was a man who stuck to his guns, and I admire the heck out of that. I even sort of admire his tendency to micromanage and throw his all into his work. That's the kind of dedication I want to see serving our country, especially in that highest political office. If you, like I was, are unfamiliar with James K. Polk, I'd recommend reading this biography on him. He was an exceptional politician. 

Monday, January 16, 2023

Let's Bust a Recap : Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Well, we've kicked off our 2023 reading finishing up the two books in progress I started last year. Ha! The first one was Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by French author Jules Verne. Cody and I started this one together back in September, and although we started well, our reading aloud time took a backseat when the holidays hit, and we were only reading a chapter or two (of the 47 chapter book) per week. 

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was originally published in French in 1871. Like many novels being written around that time period, it was first serialized between 1869 and 1870. It was translated into English a couple of years later by Reverend Lewis Page Mercier. Even though it's pretty widely recognized that Mercier's translation isn't very good, it is somehow still the standard English translation with later translations recycling a lot of Mercier's mistakes. Since the 1960s, there have been several new and complete translations published, but the basic English copy you'd find in most bookstores is going to be some form of Mercier's translation which is what we have. (You gotta love those gorgeous Barnes & Noble special editions though, right?)

In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the year is 1866 and ships from many different countries are sighting what they believe to be some incredible sea monster all over the oceans. The United States government puts together an expedition to find and destroy this monster, and Professor Pierre Aronnax, a French marine biologist, is invited to go along. He is the narrator of our story which is written in the style of his personal journal and account of their ensuing adventures. His faithful assistant Conseil, and a Canadian harpooner named Ned Land are our other two principal characters. When the expedition finds the monster and attacks it, these three find themselves hurled off the ship and save themselves by climbing onto the monster itself which they are surprised to discover is no monster, but a futuristic submarine. They are eventually taken aboard and meet the inventor and commander of the vessel, the mysterious Captain Nemo who informs them that to maintain the all-important secrecy of his watercraft, they will remain as permanent inmates on the Nautilus

What follows is a detailed account of their time on board and the many adventures they encounter. While Verne has a dry sense of humor that had me laughing out loud at times, and the actual adventures are thrilling, the in-between bits were just boring. There were chapters where all Aronnax was doing was describing the various sea life, explaining the mechanics of the Nautilus, or chronicling their travel from place to place. There was a lot of math and a lot of scientific names that I twisted my tongue trying to pronounce as I read this aloud to Cody, and frankly, I'm more of a lit/history lover than a maths and sciences nerd. But overall, I'd say the exciting parts outweighed the boring parts making this classic one worth reading. However, my enthusiasm for our other Jules Verne books has been tempered accordingly. (We also have Around the World in Eighty Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth.) Being that I don't speak French, I'm not sure what all was lost in translation, but Cody and I both enjoyed the humor in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and every so often, I'd come across a simple line that stopped me in my tracks and I'd look up at Cody and say, "What a great line!"

So do Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land ever escape the Nautilus? For that, you'll have to read this one for yourself. 

Sunday, January 1, 2023

2023 Book List

Happy New Year!
And we're off on another trip around the sun. You know how they say the days are slow but the years are fast? Over here it all just feels fast. I was looking forward to a slow Christmas this year, but it seems like I blinked and it was over. *sigh* A brand new year means a fresh new book list though, and that's always exciting. The possibilities are endless, and 2023 is boasting the most ambitious book list I've ever made for myself. 
Forty titles. Ever since I made my first book list in 2015 and totally bombed, I've tried to keep my lists pretty small. I usually aim for around twenty-four books on the official list. But this year, as I pulled books off my shelf, I figured I'd try to keep it under thirty. When I finally counted up what I'd pulled and realized I was well on my way to fifty titles, I decided I couldn't possibly narrow it down to any fewer than forty so that's where we landed. On last year's list of twenty-eight books, there were four I didn't get to. So trying to stick to the forty on this year's list ought to be real interesting. I'm already halfway through my biography of Polk, and Cody and I are over halfway through our read aloud of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The four books I didn't get to from my 2022 list carried over onto this year's list, and I am resolutely determined to read David Copperfield this year (this is the fourth time I've put it on my book list for the year). Having said all that, here's my book list for 2023.

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency : Walter R. Borneman
Zachary Taylor : John S.D. Eisenhower
Millard Fillmore : Robert J. Rayback
Franklin Pierce : Michael F. Holt
The Devil in the White City : Erik Larson
Keep A Quiet Heart : Elisabeth Elliot
A Woman After God's Own Heart : Elizabeth George
It's Not Supposed To Be This Way : Lysa Terkeurst
The Case for a Creator : Lee Strobel
A Praying Life : Paul E. Miller
Miracles : C.S. Lewis
The Tempest : William Shakespeare
Romeo and Juliet : William Shakespeare
David Copperfield : Charles Dickens
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea : Jules Verne
The Scarlet Pimpernel : Baroness Orczy
As I Lay Dying : William Faulkner
A Gentleman in Moscow : Amor Towles
Housekeeping : Marilynne Robinson
Cold Sassy Tree : Olive Ann Burns
Carry On, Jeeves : P.G. Wodehouse
The Chosen : Chaim Potok
The Starless Sea : Erin Morgenstern
If You Want To Make God Laugh : Bianca Marais
What Alice Forgot : Liane Moriarty
The Secret History : Donna Tartt
Skating Shoes : Noel Streatfeild
Emily of New Moon : L.M. Montgomery
Emily Climbs : L.M. Montgomery
Emily's Quest : L.M. Montgomery
On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness : Andrew Peterson
North! Or Be Eaten : Andrew Peterson
The Monster in the Hollows : Andrew Peterson
The Warden and the Wolf King : Andrew Peterson
James and the Giant Peach : Roald Dahl
The BFG : Roald Dahl
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd : Agatha Christie
Messenger of Truth : Jacqueline Winspear
A Red Herring Without Mustard : Alan Bradley
The Mysterious Benedict Society : Trenton Lee Stewart
Phew! We'll see how it goes. As you can see, I put four presidential biographies on this year's list. I mentioned I'm already about halfway through the Polk biography and the biographies I have for Taylor and Pierce are small so I feel confident that I may be able to finish all four. I'm still plugging away at Maisie Dobbs and Flavia de Luce, and I'm going to start The Mysterious Benedict Society this year so I'll have a lot of fun mysteries to solve. 

All in all, I'm really excited to get into my book list this year. I've been wanting to read The Starless Sea since its release, and I'm looking forward to my next Bianca Marais and Liane Moriarty books. Cody wants us to read The Wingfeather Saga aloud together so we'll get into that as soon as we finish up Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It's going to be a great reading year!

Do you make yourself a book list each year? How about New Years resolutions? I'd love to hear about it in those comments, and I hope 2023 is our best year yet.