Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 books recap: The year of the dragons

I successfully completed three book challenges this year. 1) Read 77 books (although I had to read 9 books in December to pull it off); 2) get a book bingo (if you listen to Books on the Nightstand—which you should, if you're a podcast person—you'll know what this is); and 3) check off 50 books from my TBR list (I didn't finish them all, but the important thing is that they're no longer waiting to be read).

I also read a large number of books about dragons, though that was completely unintentional.

Each challenge had its perks and downsides. This was the first year I really had to work to hit my "books read" goal, but I'm glad I set it so high. It's the only way I'll be able to chip away at all those books I want to read.

Speaking of books I want to read, it was especially satisfying making a dent on my TBR list. Since last year, I've whittled that number down from 214 to . . . 392. Sigh. I have a major problem.

As for book bingo, Shannan and I were pretty dedicated to our bingo cards over the summer. We stuck our cards to the fridge and monitored each other's progress continually. Here are some of the squares I had to get:

  • Book by an author who shares your first name
  • Thriller
  • Book with an animal on the cover
  • Part of a series
  • YA
  • Historical fiction
  • Book you think you will dislike
  • Presidential biography
  • Book about time travel
  • Title is longer than six words
  • Booktopia author
  • Recommended by a friend
  • Sci-fi
  • Re-read
  • Set in a place you want to visit
  • Has a movie/TV series based on it

There were more, but I'm impressed I remembered that many. It took me almost an entire summer to get one stinkin' bingo, and some of those squares were unnecessary torture. Still, it was a fun challenge and it forced me to read books I wouldn't normally consider. I think I'll do it again next year, as long as Shannan gets a harder card this time. ;)

This post is already getting alarmingly long, so let's get to it, shall we?

Goals: Read 77 books, check off 50 books from my TBR list, get a book bingo

Books read: 77

Books I didn't finish: 12. I'm actually quite proud of this number.

Pages read: 28,509 (about 375 per book)


  • 5 stars: 17
  • 4 stars: 28
  • 3 stars: 23
  • 2 stars: 8
  • 1 star: 1

First reads: 70

Re-reads: 7

Fiction: 67

Nonfiction: 8

*Plus two more, for anyone who bothered to do the math: the Altered Perceptions anthology had both fiction and nonfiction pieces, and I still can't decide if The Things They Carried is fiction or nonfiction. Which is driving me crazy.

Books by female authors: 50

Books by male authors: 26

*Plus an anthology that had multiple authors.

Longest book: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. 846 pages.

Shortest book: The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. 118 pages.

Favorite book (fiction): The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. I'm not sure how to talk about this book without being annoyingly gushy. It's wonderful. Haunting. Emotive. Satisfying. The winter setting is magical, the characters feel real. I'll stop the gushing now on one condition: that you promise to find a copy and read it. (I'm not ready to lend out my copy, so you're on your own.)

Favorite book (nonfiction): Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes. I really didn't read that much nonfiction this year, and most of it was English language–related. But this book was lovely. I think there's a small part of all of us that just wants to buy a cottage somewhere and grow all our own food and live the simple life. That's what Frances did during her breaks from teaching, and in one of my top travel destinations: Italy. Ah, that would be the life.

Favorite reread: The Wednesday Letters, by Jason F. Wright. I love this book. It's comforting in a come-stay-at-this-beautiful-bed-and-breakfast-and-forget-all-your-troubles kind of way.

Author of the year: Wallace Stegner. This guy is a gem. I can't believe I haven't read him before—next year I plan on reading a lot of his books. See more below.

The great American novel: Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. This book ties for Favorite Book of the Year. The next two or three books I read after this one were doomed because nothing can live up to a book you recently loved so deeply. This book spans decades and isn't real plot heavy, but if you enjoy good writing and great characters, this book is a must.

Best escape: Winter, by Marissa Meyer. I tried not to pick another Lunar Chronicles book for this category, but these books are just so perfect for hide-from-the-world entertainment. I tend to read mainly around bedtime and during lunch if I can swing it, but this is the type of book I pass on TV and games for because it provides the same type of entertainment value.

Funniest book: The Martian, by Andy Weir. I laughed so much while reading this book. It's a little crazy I enjoyed it so immensely, considering it has a lot of things I don't usually find entertaining: math and space, for instance.

Saddest book: We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas. This wasn't the most tear-jerky novel I read this year, but it's so depressing. It's been almost three months since I finished it, and I'm still hurting a little. The book covers a span of 50ish years, the last couple decades of which involve a character slowly succumbing to the most horrible disease I know of: Alzheimers. This is a very good book and one I recommend without hesitation, but just know that it doesn't soften any of the realities of life.

Weirdest book: Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter. (No, I didn't secretly write a book.) Ugh. I've given modernism/postmodernism a fair chance. And I still hate every book that falls under that category. I don't enjoy books that hurtle past the boundaries of strange, or that try so hard to be profound that they become profoundly pretentious. Not to mention that I've recently realized that I have not liked one single book that had a circus in it. So guess where this book ended up? In my fireplace.

Yawn award: The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. I like time-travel stories, so it takes a lot for an author to make it boring. And this book couldn't have been written in a more boring way. Sigh.

Chick award: Beast Charming, by Jenniffer Wardell. A lot of the books I review for the Deseret News feel like work, but this one was so much fun. And what girl doesn't enjoy a good Beauty and the Beast story?

Coolest title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. I didn't enjoy this book very much, but it has the longest title known to man, so I had to make up a category for it.

Most in need of an editor: The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown. I know Dan Brown isn't exactly known for his elegant prose, but come on. Nobody will notice if you cut out 800 of those exclamation points.

Book I can't stop recommending: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. This book slowly drew me in, and the further I got, the more I loved it. That love continued to grow after I finished the book, which is why several of my acquaintances have given it a try this year. The funny thing is, even though I can't stop recommending it, I'm certain not everyone will enjoy it. You've got to have an appreciation for Victorian literature and fantasy. If you don't, this book will probably bore you to death. So perhaps before reading this, brush up on these British authors: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis—if you like them, your chances of liking this book increase exponentially. And don't skip the footnotes—they're awesome.

Most pleasant surprise: Rilla of Ingleside, by L.M. Montgomery. Most of the Anne books are either really good or, well, a waste of time. The two books preceding this one were the worst of the series, so I didn't have high hopes for the final book. However, seeing that it was about a war gave me some hope that it at least wouldn't be silly and pointless. It wasn't. In fact, I think it's the best book of the series, after Anne of Green Gables, and it shows that Montgomery really shines when writing about the darker things of life. The fact that this book is so good makes that abominable "Continuing Story" movie even more of a travesty—Montgomery had already created a movie-worthy WWI story; Kevin Sullivan had no right to write his own and dump pre-parenthood Anne and Gilbert into it. Ugh, don't even get me started.

Biggest disappointment: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Holy cow, this book got so much hype. I try not to let hype affect my reading experience, but it's really hard to ignore it when you listen to as many book podcasts as I do. I think I disliked the book for the same reason I dislike poetry—the language is too beautiful, the chapters too short and choppy, to work as a novel.

Most thought-provoking: Ordinary People, by Judith Guest. This is kind of an oldie, with a remarkably accurate portrayal of mental illness and how complex people can be.

Fueled my hope for humanity: I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak. I didn't think I would like this book at first, but it turned out to be pretty good. I really liked the reminder that you don't have to be extraordinary to make the world a better place; being ordinary will do.

Book that would make a good movie: Night Road, by Kristin Hannah. This book is pretty soap opera-y, which tends to bode well for movie adaptations. Done right, I think it would actually be quite watchable.

Book that would make a boring movie: Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. A fabulous book does not always a good movie make. I don't think this one can be done well, and if it is, it'll most likely dissuade people from reading the book, which is a tragedy.

I'd like to live in this book for a while: The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman. I'm a mountain girl through and through, but a part of me finds the near-total isolation of living by a lighthouse appealing. You'd have your own personal beach in your backyard. Fewer distractions from the outside world. I'm sure I'm too wimpy to rough it on a deserted beach for long, but for a while it would be a simple paradise.

Please don't make me live in this book: The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah. I love WWII stories, but that doesn't mean I'm not glad I didn't have to live through it. This book focuses on what the women of France did during those years, which involved a lot of cold nights, hunger, terror—even in the supposed safety of your own home—and hopeless despair. This book makes it into my Top 5 of the year in part because Hannah was able to portray this part of history so vividly. It's such a good, heartbreaking book.

Favorite character: I'm going to cheat a little and pick two. First is Miri from The Forgotten Sisters by Shannon Hale. She's yet another one of Hale's characters I see so much of myself in, which adds a whole new level of special to the reading experience. Second is Death from Soul Music by Terry Pratchett. I still can't decide if I like Terry Pratchett, but Death is a funny and interesting enough character to urge me to keep trying.

Least favorite character: Levin, from Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. Based on other reviews I skimmed about this book, a lot of people resonate with Levin, but I just found him irritating. Most of the time, he's either doubting himself incessantly or is jealous of those who are obviously cooler than he is. Ugh. I don't have the patience for that.

Most relatable character: Jane Eyre, from, duh, Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. This was my third time reading this book, and I can't believe I never noticed the similarities between us before. She's shy, but fiercely independent. She would rather watch people creepily from the shadows than be out where all the action is. Sticking to her morals is more important to her than doing what's easy or convenient. I think I've found a bit of a literary kindred spirit.

Crush: Peder, from The Forgotten Sisters. Miri loves him, so I do too.

Don't judge this book by its cover: The Unfairest of the All, by Shannon Hale. This cover is hideous, and represents many things that suck about American culture. I wouldn't have given it any consideration at all of Shannon Hale's name wasn't on the cover. Rest assured that what's inside doesn't reflect the plastic fakery of the cover—there's plenty of substance and fun trapped in those pages.

All the books I read in 2015, in the order I finished them (favorites are bolded):

  1. The Wednesday Letters, by Jason F. Wright
  2. The Wedding Letters, by Jason F. Wright
  3. The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman
  4. Pierced by Love, by Laura L. Walker
  5. Sorcerers and Seers, by Chris Heimerdinger
  6. Drums of Desolation, by Chris Heimerdinger
  7. Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes
  8. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
  9. Altered Perceptions (compilation)
  10. I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak
  11. The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman
  12. Nice Girls Still Don't Get the Corner Office, by Lois P. Frankel
  13. What Is Lost, by Lauren Skidmore
  14. The Magician's Assistant, by Ann Patchett
  15. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
  16. Beast Charming, by Jenniffer Wardell
  17. Assassin's Apprentice, by Robin Hobb
  18. The Forgotten Sisters, by Shannon Hale
  19. The Unfairest of Them All, by Shannon Hale
  20. Soul Music, by Terry Pratchett
  21. Spindle's End, by Robin McKinley
  22. The Sandcastle Girls, by Chris Bohjalian
  23. State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
  24. Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris
  25. Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead
  26. The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
  27. The Cross Bearer, by E. James Harrison
  28. Snow Like Ashes, by Sara Raasch
  29. Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner
  30. The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
  31. The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien
  32. Dragon Slippers, by Jessica Day George
  33. How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell
  34. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
  35. The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown
  36. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
  37. Deep Blue, by Jennifer Donnelly
  38. The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
  39. The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey
  40. Remembering Laughter, by Wallace Stegner
  41. Night Road, by Kristin Hannah
  42. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle
  43. His Majesty's Dragon, by Naomi Novik
  44. Dragon Flight, by Jessica Day George
  45. Dragon Spear, by Jessica Day George
  46. A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L'Engle
  47. A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeleine L'Engle
  48. A Wonderlandiful World, by Shannon Hale
  49. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
  50. Waterfall, by Lisa Tawn Bergren
  51. Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
  52. Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter
  53. Feast for Thieves, by Marcus Brotherton
  54. The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic, by Emily Croy Barker
  55. Where She Went, by Gayle Forman
  56. The Lexicographer's Dilemma, by Jack Lynch
  57. The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  58. Many Waters, by Madeleine L'Engle
  59. An Acceptable Time, by Madeleine L'Engle
  60. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente
  61. We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas
  62. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, by Richard L. Bushman
  63. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs
  64. The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson
  65. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
  66. Ordinary People, by Judith Guest
  67. The Martian, by Andy Weir
  68. Winter, by Marissa Meyer
  69. Evergreen Springs, by RaeAnne Thayne
  70. In the Days of Lachoneus: The Gathering, by David Armstrong
  71. Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song, by Sara Bareilles
  72. Rainbow Valley, by L.M. Montgomery
  73. Rilla of Ingleside, by L.M. Montgomery
  74. The Timepiece, by Richard Paul Evans
  75. Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
  76. Jesus the Christ, by James E. Talmage
  77. Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale

Previous years:

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A satisfying snowstorm

When it comes to snow, ya'll know how hard I am to please.

Yesterday, I was pleased.

I went to bed the night before more than a little hopeful.

And woke up to the winter wonderland of my heart's desire.

Yes, those are my footprints.

I don't think I've ever seen this much snow outside of Elk Ridge.

Naturally, I had to get a little snow walk in before the sidewalks were plowed.

There was even enough snow to justify (or rather, encourage) working from home. After watching cars inch across 900 East at two miles an hour, I had no desire to add my car to the mess. UDOT was practically begging people to stay off the roads all day, anyway.

The only downside to staying home was that my apartment was freezing. So I sat at my desk all day in this attire (plus a jacket).

After a tiring day of nonstop work, it was time to relax with one of my favorite Christmas movies, Home Alone. Followed by an evening tryst through the snow because, well, why wouldn't you want to traipse through the snow when it's 25˚ out? Post-sunset is one of the many magical stages of snow.

I got my fill of this snowstorm, but I'm already looking forward to the next one.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

What Mary knew

I'm feeling the need to set something straight. Every Christmas, this sort of thing starts floating around Facebook, collecting tons of likes and emphatic agreements:

I'm referring, of course, to the song "Mary, Did You Know?" It's a beautiful song (the a capella arrangements, at least), one that is dear to my heart. It's one of the first songs I learned as a Trouvere, and also one of the first I sang with my mom and sisters.

So I admit, I get a little defensive when people roll their eyes and say, "Of course Mary knew."

Because when you stop and think about it, how much did Mary really know?

Luke 1:28–33 reads:
And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.
And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
It's all right there in the text—yes, Mary knew she would be the mother of the son of God. She knew he would be great. She knew he would save the world. While every other mother can only hope their child will do great things, Mary had that assurance before her child was even conceived.

But just like with every prophecy, whether it be rooted in scriptures, legend, or epic fantasy, it's impossible to fully understand it when it is first given. Mary continually pondered things in her heart, but her understanding of her divine son came slowly. James E. Talmage puts it this way:
Mary appears never to have fully understood her Son; at every new evidence of His uniqueness she marveled and pondered anew. He was hers, and yet in a very real sense not wholly hers. There was about their relation to each other a mystery, awful yet sublime, a holy secret which that chosen and blessed mother hesitated even to tell over to herself. (Jesus the Christ, pg. 116)
This isn't to rip on Mary in any way. Most people expected the Messiah to be a king and conqueror—how could she have known that her son would have the authority to challenge their religious traditions, walk on water, heal the blind and deaf, save more than just the people he interacted with during his mortal ministry? It basically defies human logic to expect any of these things to happen.

Yes, Mary knew who her child was. But it took some time to fully understand what that meant. "Mary, Did You Know?" is not like that question Harry asked Dumbledore regarding whether he knew Tom Riddle would grow up to be the darkest wizard of all time. The question merely reflects the constant wonder Mary must have felt as she watched her child grow. It's a phenomenon we're still marveling over today, even after 2,000 years.

That question isn't just for Mary. It's for us, too.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Something good

I don't like going longer than a week without posting, and whenever that happens (which has been pretty standard the past few years, sadly), I start to scramble for ideas on what to write about. Sometimes I'll even make a mind map on a sticky-note to help me brainstorm. That's how devoted I am to my readers, guys.

But lately the only "inspiration" I've been able to easily draw from has been bad news—yucky politics (is that redundant?), unreliable media (again, redundant?), and so much violence. Did you know we've had more shootings this year than we've had days?

These types of things really bum me out, and I don't like to dwell on them too much.

One thing that consistently doesn't bum me out, though, is this group of people.

 Sure, we aren't immune to family drama, but a lot of our time together looks like this.

 And on very rare occasions for very short moments, they look like this.

It's difficult to feel too down about the world's troubles when you've got little human beings like these in your life.

Or that little smirk.

It's not ignoring the world's problems when you find comfort and joy in your family. If anything, it gives you more motivation to make your small corner, at least, a little better.

Just ask Sam.