Sunday, February 5, 2017

Our Top 16 in 2016


LOL remember the goals we set for ourselves last year? Well, we didn't achieve all of them. Or even half of them, in my (Charlotte) case. Winner winner chicken dinner. Our plan to review most of the books we read? That didn't pan out. But 2016 was a hard year all around, so we're not going to be too hard on ourselves. And while we didn't review all the books we wanted to, we did read quite a few. Here are our favorite sixteen books from 2016.

Charlotte's Eight Favorites:

1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (review here)

This book was awesome. If you're into dystopia, you'll like this book. If you're a nerd (geek?) and you're really into video games and movies from the 80's you'll especially like this book, as it's filled with references of that era. (I'm not a huge 80's buff but it didn't matter - the author does a good enough job explaining plot that anyone can follow and enjoy this story.) Corporate greed, poverty, resistance - this book's got it. Highly, highly recommend.

2. How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania for J.K. Rowling's Bestselling Books by John Granger (review here)

This book was fantastic. It's filled with all the Christian symbolism throughout Rowling's famous series. If you enjoy Harry Potter and you're a Christian (or enjoy learning about Christianity), you can't go wrong with this book. 


3. The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy (review here)

I loved this book. It's historical fiction, but it alternates between current day and Civil War-era, following the stories of two women. I admit I enjoyed the Civil War chapters much, much more than the modern day ones, but it was still an excellent story. Sarah (our Civil War protagonist) is an abolitionist like her father, John Brown, and devotes herself to the cause in a surprising but believable way. It's thrilling. 

4. The Book of Esther: A Novel by Emily Barton (review here)

This was... dense? It's been months since I read this book and I still can't properly describe it. It's heavy, that's for sure. There's no shortage of long anecdotes, but it's so worth it. It's sort of mystical and imaginative but it's super badass. It's technically historical fiction but that's stretching it because it totally changes world history. If you like an interesting and often feminist book with superb writing, this might be one for you. 

5. My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir by Colleen Carroll Campbell

This was actually a gift from Liz. It was a wonderful book, even though I found myself disagreeing with the author here and there. Through her own story, Campbell introduces readers to several saints and it's a great way to see how our own lives can mirror them (making it possible to draw inspiration and guidance from them). Definitely one of my favorite books of the year. 

6. Prince Caspian (The Chronicles of Narnia Book 4) by C.S. Lewis

I finally read The Chronicles of Narnia and I loved them so much. Knowing myself, it's possible I'll read them again in 2017. :) There's not much I can add to all the wonderful things that have been said about these books by others throughout the years. I loved them all, but I think I especially loved Prince Caspian. 


7. Ender's Game/Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

I can't decide which of these books I liked more, so I'm throwing them both up here. This saga is incredible. It's action-packed (well, Ender's Game is, anyway) and thought provoking. I'm currently finishing it up and loving it. Top of the sci-fi world. 

8. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (review here)

Jane Eyre became my favorite book as soon as I read it. I picked it up as part of Liz's challenge for me and loved it. It's an emotional roller coaster, Jane is the #1 protagonist maybe ever, the other characters are terrific (Diana! Mr. Rochester (you know, sort of)!), and the themes are A+. Hands down my favorite book of the year. Go read it. 

 
Liz's Eight Favorites:

Before I begin, let me just say, Charlotte read like more than double the books I read, so she had a lot more to choose from for her top eight. Also, this bish must have an amazing memory, because I have to rely on my goodreads account to even remember what books I read in 2016. I legit looked at some of these books and was like..."I read this last year??" Fun fact: the only reason I was able to meet my goal to read 20 books in 2016 is because most of the books I read were YA novels. Anyway...

1. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

Because obviously, right? I was so glad I finally read the entire series. I had read the first few books as a kid, but I was really bad at doing series when I was younger. Honestly, I think I appreciated the series more as an adult because there was stuff that was so funny. As a kid, you take it all so seriously, but as an adult you can see some of the childish humor more clearly. I also have experienced so much since I was a kid. My dad died when I was 17, and I've been through so much. This made me appreciate some of the themes so much more now. I am officially an HP addict like Char. Someone buy me tons of merch for my house (Ravenclaw, duh).


2. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project is a self-help book that is 1) not preachy (which I think many self-help books can be), 2) very well-written and as enjoyable to read as a fiction novel, and 3) actually helpful AF. I can honestly say I am now a Gretchen Rubin fan girl (she was at my organization's gala this year and I got to get a picture with her!!). Charlotte was the first one to recommend Gretchen's books to me, and now I have been recommending this book to friends left and right, and everyone has liked it! I've even gone back to read a few sections over more than once because the advice is just that good. If you are looking for tips and ideas to have a more fulfilling life and to change up some of your habits, this book will be your bible.

Me (left) with Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project
3. Eleanor by Jason Gurley

One of the few books I actually wrote a review for in 2016! This book was emotionally heavy, to say the least. I remember picking this up to read when I was already in a bummer of a mood, and it just made me even sadder. That said, this book was really great overall. The novel's focus on the nature of time and space, and the power of choice make it a fascinating and gripping read.

4. The Serpent King by Jeff Zetner

Inspired by The Happiness Project, last year I subscribed to Owlcrate, a monthly subscription box that comes with one YA novel and other bookish goodies, for a few months as a way to treat myself. This was the novel that came with my first box, and I was so skeptical at first. The book's description sounded corny, but I LOVED it! It's a coming-of-age novel that takes place in the south and follows the lives of three friends, all of whom are very different from one another, as they try to get through senior year of high school. Besides the coming-of-age aspect, there's also interesting commentary on the role of class and religion in young adulthood.

5. This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

Another book from Owlcrate! I love books that allow the reader to really envision the story and surroundings, and this book was one of them. It's a supernatural novel (that is borderline a dystopian novel) that takes place in the future United States. A city has been split by war...and monsters. The two protagonists, who both live in opposite parts of the city and have completely opposite attitudes and upbringing, have to choose what role they play: hero or villain, and both are pushing back against the parts society expects them to play. I can't wait for the second book to come out!

6. The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

It took me awhile to get through this one, but it was so worth it. Malcolm X is easily one of the most misunderstood, and misrepresented, figures in modern history. This book is insightful and as relevant as ever. Plus, there are so many aspects to Malcolm that are relatable, funny, and of course, admirable.


7. At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen

I read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen either in late high school or early in college, and I had loved it. So, when At the Water's Edge came out, it had long been on my TBR. During World War II, a young woman, Maddie, journeys to Scotland with her husband and his best friend to search for the loch ness monster. But during Maddie's time in Scotland, she discovers the monster isn't what she expected, and neither is she. I was worried Maddie would annoy me at first, but she ends up being an empowering character, and the plot is excellent!

8. My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand

This novel had me busting out laughing. Yet another YA novel I got from Owlcrate, this novel is a historical fiction/comedy/fantasy novel that retells the story of Lady Jane Grey, and I must say that this story is a lot better than what happened in reality. If you are looking for a fun read that offers a great spin on history, this is for you. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Sunlight Pilgrims

By Charlotte
Book Review: The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan
Official FC Rating: 



This is going to be a short review because I wasn't overly fond of this book. 

This book takes place in 2020 when the world is experiencing the worst winter in 200 years. The story line is promising. I love a good dystopian story, but... this one didn't quite do it for me. It felt overly poetic and slow. I know that some people love poetic writing, but I'm not generally one of them. I think I may try and give this book another go sometime in late winter, because I really am intrigued. But my first read of it was dismal. I'm giving it three stars even though I didn't like it because I can tell it's a good book and that it's mostly just my own preferences coloring my view of it. 
__
Char

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the Blogging For Books program in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Gregor and the Code of Claw

By Charlotte
Book Review: Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins (Book 5 in The Underland Chronicles)
Official FC Rating:

This review was originally posted on my personal blog, To Harriet Louise.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote up a little review of how I felt about the fourth book in The Underland Chronicles - Gregor and the Marks of Secret. I loved it and thought it was a good continuation of the series, if a little slower paced than the other books. I also mentioned not remembering quite as much detail since it's been months since I've read the books... it's obviously the same deal with this book. But I think I can still give a pretty decent idea of what this book is about and whether or not you should read it (you should!). 

Like I've said in each of these reviews, this series is amazing. (For those who like kidlit/have kids and are familiar with it: this series is better than Percy Jackson but not quite as good as Harry Potter.) It tackles discrimination, oppression, war, right vs. wrong, morality, and this time, fate. By now Gregor has fought in Underland several times, trying to do what is right (and to be honest, just trying to figure outwhat is right). He learns of a prophecy that calls for his death (this story line is sort of getting old? I say this as though it ever stops me from reading anything...) and must decide if he's still willing to fight. I guess I won't give the answer away but it's pretty obvious considering it's a novel... 

But anyway. We once again deal with Solovet and her grimy tactics. She's basically America. She wants to look good and fair and all, and she says she stands for justice and peace, but... she tries to "achieve" justice and peace by, like, violent tactics. So... 

Gregor is not a fan. 

A lot of this story is simply battle. We still have some issues and we're not entirely sure who is bad and who is good. I think the ending is mostly a morally sound one. We do not get to know every detail about what happens once the novel is over (big things like "does peace last?" and small things like "what happens to Luxa and Gregor?"), which annoys me a bit. But I thought we were given some clarity on the war and on morals and I think the "right" things happened. (I'm trying and failing to describe this without giving anything away.) Essentially, none of the bad guys truly win. The morally bad characters - whether obnoxiously, Donald Trump-esque bad like Bane or more subtly, Hillary Clinton-esque bad like Solovet are ultimately seen for what they are. It is a dark, hard ending. There are major losses. I cried and I imagine it'd be difficult for kids, but that's true of this story in general once we hit the third book. I'd want to read it with a kid instead of them reading it alone. 

So this whole time we have one species fighting another species, some species driving other species out of their homes, species trying to kill off other species, etc. etc. And throughout this whole thing we see some members, particularly of the oppressor groups, employ awful means. There is little regard for life by these characters, and especially for life that doesn't resemble their own. (Sound familiar? Regalia is America, for real.) And at the very end of the series, our young hero Luxa and the scrappy Ripred, a rat leader, do something completely unprecedented and totally moving (to me, anyway) to change the way things are done and I don't think Collins could have given us a better ending. I don't want to spoil it so I can't say much more, but I think Collins just ended it on such a good and appropriate note. 

Overall as a series these books teach readers to question war, to stand up for the oppressed, to wonder about free will, and to choose good. I don't think it gets much better. I really think I might like this series better than The Hunger Games. I 100% recommend it.
__
Char

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Gregor and the Marks of Secret

By Charlotte
Book Review: Gregor and the Marks of Secret by Suzanne Collins (Book 4 in The Underland Chronicles)
Official FC Rating:




This review was originally posted on my personal blog, To Harriet Louise.

Whoa. It has been nine months since I posted the review of the third book in this series. Nine months! I could have gestated a child in the time it took me to get my act together enough to post this review. A HUMAN CHILD. That's how long I've procrastinated. 

And unlike a child, which would have grown stronger and more defined over time, the nine month break means my memory of the book is fainter, the impression it left lighter. Which makes for a lackluster review. Lackluster, my middle name.

Despite all that, my overwhelming feeling toward this book is that it was fantastic. I don't remember as many details as I did two minutes after reading it, obviously (and my computer did me a solid and deleted my general review of the whole series). But I remember the plot well enough (and was smart enough to dog-ear pages with quotes that struck me) and I definitely remember the themes Suzanne Collins explores and I know that I finished this book feeling like I absolutely needed to get my hands on the fifth book. I appreciated Collins even more than I already did after reading this book. I still am awed by her ability to talk about war and politics in ways that are appropriate for kids (and still interesting for adults). Somewhere between reading the third book in this series and the fourth book, it occurred to me that I might like The Underland Chronicles more than I like The Hunger Games.


The fourth book, Gregor and the Marks of Secret, is a bit different from its predecessors in that we don't have a direct prophecy or end point this time. The plot is a bit more mysterious and open ended. Basically, Luxa (I gave some character descriptions here), the future queen, is sent a message of distress and she and Gregor go searching for an answer. They find out that the mice of the Underland are once again being driven out of their homes by a more powerful species. (Sound familiar? Collins' stories are political ones.) But when she and Gregor explore, they realize that (spoiler alert - though this isn't a huge reveal and won't ruin the series for anyone, probably...) this time, the mice aren't just being driven out of their homes; they're being murdered. It's a genocide orchestrated by the Bane and the rats. We see some more character development in this one, especially with Luxa as she begins to truly come into her role. Ultimately, she declares war on the rats.  

Needless to say, this book is dark. It's the darkest in the series, in my opinion. If I had kids, I'd want to read it with/to them. I wouldn't want them to read it alone. That said, I still think it's an age-appropriate exploration of war and politics and hatred and fear.

And if you happen to be reading it now, be prepared for some scary real-life parallels:

"He will find followers, because he’s the Bane. He’s got the white coat, and the size, and enough hatred brewing inside him to wipe out the Underland as we know it. Most rats will overlook the fact that he’s unbalanced, because he’ll be telling them exactly what they want to hear. They’ve been starved too long, and then so many died from the plague... especially the pups. No, the gnawers won’t care who he is or what he does if he brings them revenge."

Familiar, right?

While it's a not as conclusive as the previous books, it's still pretty excellent. It's sad, of course. But we get to watch as our characters consider whether there are things worth going to war over, if there are things that justify killing. (And as the series goes on, I tend to think that most of the "good" characters make the right decisions, which is why I think this series is so good for kids. Like it or not, we're currently living in a war-obsessed country and I think it's great for kids to question such values. This book will prompt those questions.) It's also nice to see the characters face trials bravely. Obviously courage and bravery and sacrifice are good things in books and good things in real life.

Neville knows. He would like The Underland Chronicles.
So basically, loved this book. I didn't love it as much as the third book, but it's an important step in the series and sets us up for the fifth and final book. It doesn't work as a stand alone novel, though, so you'll have to start from the beginning. A very good place to start.

You won't regret it. Go pick up this book/series, pronto.
__
Char

Reviews for earlier books in The Underland Chronicles:

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Reading Round-Up


It has been a hot minute since we've posted a Reading Round-Up. Forgive us. We've seen a bunch of great book-related things on the internet that we're excited to share. 

Most importantly, perhaps, given the recent events in Dallas, the continued unjust killing of black men by police in this country, and the growing protests are these three articles: 


Of course, sometimes you just want to cope by picking up a favorite book or series (a la Harry Potter, LotR, a Jane Austen, you know). That's cool too. 

I (Charlotte) am starting to enjoy science fiction and fantasy more than I ever thought was possible. I saw this article of May's best sci-fi picks a couple weeks ago and I've had my eye on The Admiral ever since. Something that's compared to The Martian and Jurassic Park has got to be good.

This computer "reads" books and then creates a graph to show how the books made it feel (happy or sad). It is pretty wild. And it makes Jane Eyre look like book goals with it's constant ups and downs. 


Modern Mrs. Darcy is reading a few books right now solely because they were recommended by her husband and kids. (The book recommended by her husband sounds particularly good.) Do you all read books just because your family/friends ask you to? We're of the opinion that the best kinds of friends are the ones who read your book recommendations! 

Sharing this simply because the title is funny: 31 Books You Need to Bring to the Beach This Summer. Yes! Me, my beer, and my thirty one books. Kidding aside, there are some good ones on there. Love Walked In is one of my favorites. 

Buzzfeed also took to Facebook to share one of their oldies - a list of books to read in your twenties.

Listen Buzzfeed, we're happy for you and I'mma let you finish, but Filthy Casket had one of the best 20's Book Lists of all time.  


ahem. 

We are looking forward to Gilmore Girls with just as much excitement as the next person. Looks like Lauren Graham's new book, in which she talks about the show and her life in between filming the original and the new episodes, is coming out in November. Yes!

Speaking of TV, here's a little something to infuriate us all: a show based on Nancy Drew won't be airing because it's "too female," supposedly. Ugh.

I'm always looking for Harry Potter tattoo ideas, so I was happy to see this list of "insane" HP tattoos and this list of "subtle" HP tattoos (tbh most of them aren't subtle). I am positively smitten with the idea of an outline of Hogwarts for a tattoo! 

Speaking of Harry Potter, we're both in agreement with these people - there should be a Harry Potter Go app (similar to the new super popular Pokemon app). WHAT FUN. Yer a wizard, Harry. 

And since we're sort of on a Harry Potter roll now.... some people think that J.K Rowling is going overboard with all of the Harry Potter-related things she keeps creating. We are not some of these people. Please, Queen Rowling, never stop bringing us to the Wizarding World. Also, if you're a fan, go check this out. Amazing!! And one last HP-post! Here's an oldie but goodie - your Middle Earth race based on your Hogwarts house! (Or just cheat: Gryffindor: Dwarf, Hufflepuff: Hobbit, Ravenclaw: Elf, Slytherin: Wizard.)


We both read this article that assigns literary characters to Meyers-Briggs personality types. We're of mixed opinions overall, but both think there are some discrepancies (Dudley's "sorting" seemed off to me). 

And, finally - obsessed with this Pinterest page for book-lovers.

Til next time!
Liz & Char 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

New Favorite Book

By Charlotte
Book Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Official FC Rating:

I just returned this book to the library and now I'm sitting in a puddle of my own tears, totally pining for it. 

If you'll remember, Jane Eyre was one of Liz's favorite books she read in 2015. When we wrote down our reading goals for 2016, we also agreed to set challenges for each other. I challenged Liz to read the Harry Potter series (for the sake of her soul!) and she challenged me to read three books from her list of 2015's favorites. I chose Jane Eyre first because I didn't realize it was 680 pages long. The nerve. I'm glad I didn't realize just how heavy it was, because I might have shrunk away in fear. But! Things worked out, I read the book, and I am better for it. Damn, it was amazing. It is, I think, my new favorite (not counting Harry Potter). (Actually, I think it is going to be my forever favorite. You know how people are asked what their favorite book is and they can immediately answer, "Pride and Prejudice!" or whatever? This may sound odd, but I feel like I've never been able to do that, since no book has spoken to me quite like Harry Potter, and Harry Potter is, um, seven books. Charlotte Bronte has solved this problem for me. Thank you, Queen Bronte. And I guess thank you, Lizette, too. ;) 

Yes, anyway, back to Jane Eyre. The writing takes some getting used to. That's true of most classics, I think. But it's great writing, once you get the hang of it. It took me about 70 pages before I started to appreciate just how beautiful the actual writing was. I don't need to go on about the writing - it's a classic, everyone knows it's good. I'm just saying, if you're like me and usually struggle with classics for a hot minute, stick with it. You'll get used to it.

There's not a ton to say since it's a classic and people have been reading it, and writing about it, for literal generations. Here are my main thoughts:

I loved the independence and resilience of Jane.

I loved her ability to stay humble while still understanding her worth. (Though I was mad at/for her several times throughout the novel when she'd accept no compliment or treat.)

I was intrigued by Rochester. I adored him (not at first). 

I liked how many themes Bronte played with. She did so brilliantly.

It dealt with the ideas of atonement and redemption and forgiveness well. And I love when a novel does this well. (Unlike, to an extent, The Kite Runner. Ahem.)

I really liked some of the other characters, particularly Diana. I think it was Diana, anyway... 

"My pale little elf" is my newest favorite term of endearment. 

The dialogue between Jane and Rochester was enchanting. 

I liked that I felt as though I was reading a beautiful love story while reading about a woman overcoming abuse and neglect while reading about morality. Again, a nod to Charlotte Bronte. 

Basically I loved everything about this book. If you're new to classics, pick this one. If you're looking for strong female characters, pick this one. If you're looking for a bit of feminism, pick this one. If you're looking for a romance, pick this one. Just pick this one.

Liz said Jane Eyre, as a character and as a novel, will stick with her for years to come. I quite agree. 
__
Char      

Sunday, June 26, 2016

If You Love Soup...

By Charlotte
Book Review: Broth and Stock from The Nourished Kitchen
Official FC Rating:

...then you need this book. 

This book was delivered to the house and approximately three hours later I'd finished reading it. And then passed it along to others to read. It's been a hit with everyone. It's organized terrifically, beginning with lessons on how to make broth (obviously) and then listing recipes by type (poultry, meat, fish, vegetable). So it's good if you happen to be one of those freaks who smile at all well-organized things (hand in the air) and if you're into any kind of soup. This book is just as useful for the carnivore as it is for the vegan. I'm a Ron Swanson kind of person when it comes to food and I tend to joke-mock people who don't eat meat (all in good fun...) but let me tell you, this book has got me reconsidering my priorities. 


Don't get me wrong, I'll make and love some of the meat recipes. But for the first time maybe ever I read some of the vegetable recipes and thought, "whoa, I need to make this!" Highly unusual, and, I think, a testament to the quality of this book. 

I'd recommend this book to anyone. I often lament my lack of basic kitchen knowledge, and this book may just put an end to that. I know how to cook well enough, but I'm excited to use broth I make myself instead of buy. You know. Also! Cuts down on food waste since it tells you how to use virtually every piece of meat, bone, etc. (There's even a "kitchen scrap broth" that includes using peels and skins you'd normally throw in a compost bin.) And we all know cutting down on waste is hot.

If nothing I'm saying sounds surprising to you because you're some kind of kitchen wiz, buy the book for the recipes. If the things I'm saying are new to you - I've never heard of using onion peels for broth - then buy the book for the nice basics and for the recipes. Basically if you're a human person and you need to eat food to stay nourished and alive, buy the book. 

The pictures are nice, too. ;)  
__
Char

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the Blogging For Books program in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.