& Fridays: December Uppercase Box

I mentioned Uppercase Box in my almost-belated gift-giving guide for the holidays for book lovers. In the past year or so, I feel like book subscription boxes have really taken off. Which is exciting. And also dangerous. For my wallet.

One of my lovely Christmas gifts was a few months’ subscription to Uppercase Box, one such service that sends you a hardcover YA book and a couple of book-themed goodies. Let the unboxing begin!

One

Yes, I did use Christmas tissue paper as a backdrop. It felt appropriate.

I love the cloth bag it comes in. They could just throw everything in a cardboard box and call it a day but this adds a nice touch. Now to find a way to repurpose it.

 

 

 

Two

Ahhh the spoils – look how colorful everything is!

The book goodies this time are a gorgeous, wooden bookmark in the style of a cherry tree, and a great calendar with fun, graphic quotes of various YA books. I have a thing for bookmarks (future Friday post on that later!), and this one is almost too pretty to use (just kidding – what’s the point of a bookmark if you don’t use it?!). The calendar is a great size – compact so it won’t take up too much space on your desk or wall, but big enough to see the quotes and the books they come from. This is a great way to get reading suggestions, too!

Four

The book, Not if I See You First by Eric Lindstrom sounds super interesting. I was just ruminating the other day on the thought that becoming blind would be so devastating to me. So many of the things that I love – reading, traveling, writing – involve sight. Not that I couldn’t do and appreciate all of those things if I were blind – in fact, I think I might enjoy them better, in new and different ways. But I have never read a book from the perspective of a blind character. I am excited to get to this new book on my to-read shelf!

 

Five

As an added bonus, there are these neat notes every so often as you read that can unlock cool content. When I entered this code on Uppercase’s Reading Experience page, a video from the author popped up explaining some of the main character’s motivation. The page also makes sure to inform you that the video is spoiler-free, so you don’t have to worry about flipping through the book and typing in all of the codes before you have finished the story. It reminds me a little of Night Film, one of my favorite books, which also involves multimedia content to enhance its story.

So far I’m loving it all! Packaging, book goodies, and book! Anybody else get a subscription box for the holidays?

& Review: How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz. Fiction. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt May 2015

How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz. Fiction. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt May 2015

The Book Itself: I am beginning to think that I only choose simple, graphic covers. While I do like the simplicity of it, it doesn’t really tell you what the book is about. There are three friends involved, and there are three components to the graphic flame?

My ReviewWhen UC Santa Cruz roommates Anna and Kate find passed-out Georgiana Leoni on a lawn one night, they wheel her to their dorm in a shopping cart. Twenty years later, they gather around a campfire on the lawn of a New England mansion. What happens in between-the web of wild adventures, unspoken jealousies, and sudden tragedies that alter the course of their lives-is charted with sharp wit and aching sadness in this meticulously constructed novel.

Anna, the de facto leader, is fearless and restless-moving fast to stay one step ahead of her demons. Quirky, contemplative Kate is a natural sidekick but a terrible wingman (“If you go home with him, might I suggest breathing through your mouth”). And then there’s George: the most desired woman in any room, and the one most likely to leave with the worst man.

Shot through with the crackling dialogue, irresistible characters, and propulsive narrative drive that make Lutz’s books so beloved, How to Start a Fire pulls us deep into Anna, Kate, and George’s complicated bond and pays homage to the abiding, irrational love we share with the family we choose.

*sigh* Too many pet peeves in this one to help me truly enjoy it. It has severely dysfunctional, unlikable characters who all talk and think the same, a jumpy timeline with no backbone or common thread, and a story with no real resolution or redeeming moment for anyone involved.

Let’s break it down by our narrators: Anna is perhaps the most annoying to me. She is power hungry and has a desperate need to be the center of attention, leading to serious, serious problems with drugs and alcohol post-college. She is sanctimonious, rude, and I never believe that she is going to change, even when she tries and tries again to kick her habits.

Kate is everyone’s enabler. She is unambitious, spending most of the novel in front of TVs, jobless, stubbornly hating her family for doing nothing wrong. She is also, largely, too passive to be really memorable.

George is so needy for male attention (daddy issues – what else?) that she either dates huge jerks, or men she feels no attraction to (but they’re the opposite of the guys she usually dates, so she’ll develop feelings for them, right? Wrong). She is also pretty hateful and spiteful towards virtually everyone.

I don’t like them. I don’t connect to any of them. While I think all of their problems are realistic, and we all know people in our lives similar to one or more of these women, they all stay nasty and addicted and subservient. None of them really overcome anything. None of them acknowledge their issues or work through them or treat each other well (even though this is a story supposedly about lifelong female friendship). I’m not asking for a happy ending with sparkles and rainbows, but I want to see characters grow. And I get that not all people grow, not everyone sorts through their flaws or even recognizes them. But it’s incredibly frustrating to read that – I feel like I am cheated out of an actual story. What is this if these characters don’t show growth or change?

This is compounded by the jumpy narrative. Every chapter jumps around on the timeline, and jumps between narrators. It is very hard to keep up, and I eventually stopped trying. Sometimes there are unifying clues – this person has died by the time this chapter’s events occur, Anna has been fired from this job already, etc. But overall, you’re left to fend for yourself. It feels too scattered, too piece-y to bring things together. I think this really affected how I saw and felt about our characters (who I think you can tell I’m not too fond of…)

Finally, they all talk and think in the same tone and inflection. I found myself having to flip back a few pages to see who was talking, because they all spoke in the same, clipped, almost robotic fashion. Overall, I wanted more variety, more growth, more story out of this story, and I was disappointed.

My Grade: C-

& Review: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari. Nonfiction. Publisher: Penguin Press June 2015

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari. Nonfiction. Publisher: Penguin Press June 2015

The Book Itself: Get it? The hears in his eyes stand for romance! This cover is very Aziz – punny yet modern.

My ReviewAt some point, every one of us embarks on a journey to find love. We meet people, date, get into and out of relationships, all with the hope of finding someone with whom we share a deep connection. This seems standard now, but it’s wildly different from what people did even just decades ago. Single people today have more romantic options than at any point in human history. With technology, our abilities to connect with and sort through these options are staggering. So why are so many people frustrated?

Some of our problems are unique to our time. “Why did this guy just text me an emoji of a pizza?” “Should I go out with this girl even though she listed Combos as one of her favorite snack foods? Combos?!” “My girlfriend just got a message from some dude named Nathan. Who’s Nathan? Did he just send her a photo of his penis? Should I check just to be sure?”

But the transformation of our romantic lives can’t be explained by technology alone. In a short period of time, the whole culture of finding love has changed dramatically. A few decades ago, people would find a decent person who lived in their neighborhood. Their families would meet and, after deciding neither party seemed like a murderer, they would get married and soon have a kid, all by the time they were twenty-four. Today, people marry later than ever and spend years of their lives on a quest to find the perfect person, a soul mate.

For years, Aziz Ansari has been aiming his comic insight at modern romance, but for Modern Romance, the book, he decided he needed to take things to another level. He teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg and designed a massive research project, including hundreds of interviews and focus groups conducted everywhere from Tokyo to Buenos Aires to Wichita. They analyzed behavioral data and surveys and created their own online research forum on Reddit, which drew thousands of messages. They enlisted the world’s leading social scientists, including Andrew Cherlin, Eli Finkel, Helen Fisher, Sheena Iyengar, Barry Schwartz, Sherry Turkle, and Robb Willer. The result is unlike any social science or humor book we’ve seen before.

In Modern Romance, Ansari combines his irreverent humor with cutting-edge social science to give us an unforgettable tour of our new romantic world.

I like Aziz Ansari’s comedy. I’ve watched and enjoyed his stand-up specials on Netflix, and I have watched an episode of Parks and Recreation or two. But what made me pick up his book was that it wasn’t a series of humorous essays or short stories. A lot of comedians are doing that these days, and they’re hugely popular…but I find that I’m less prone to laugh at loud when reading the comedy than when I’m seeing it.

Not that Modern Romance is so serious. There were definitely moments where I read almost an entire chapter and heard Aziz’s voice in my head. But for the bulk of the book, Ansari takes a look at what “dating” in the modern world looks like, and how and why it is so different from how our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents dated.

For starters, and for enders, the internet and cell phones have made it all harder and easier at the same time. That is the moral of the story. The topic sentence. The lead. The synopsis of this book in a nutshell (with some mention of Aziz Ansari thrown in there for clarity).

It’s also…I don’t know…kind of obvious? We’re glued to our phones and the technology around us and use that technology to find people to date. We have millions more options than our great-grandparents did, who often married their neighbor or at least someone a friend of a friend or family knew. This makes it harder to date because there is constantly someone else you could be swiping, “liking,” or expressing other electronic positivities toward. And you’re more tempted to keep dating even when you find someone pretty cool because there are so many options at the dating buffet!

And so on and so forth. All of this makes sense when you read it, but after a few chapters of it, it begins to seem so logical it’s kind of obvious. Yeah, dating apps are a cool leap forward, but it’s changing how we meet people and stay faithful and live our lives, etc. And after the third or fourth iteration of that, you begin to go “Okay, yeah…now what?” As in, tell me something I don’t know.

Cue the international contingent. Aziz and his sociologist/research buddies went abroad and researched the modern dating lives of cultures not of the North America variety. And I found that fascinating. Especially the powerful online presence of young Saudi Arabian people, and how social media and dating/meeting people apps were affecting dating and meeting people in a country with much stricter rules than us over here in the continental US. And the lackadaisical mindset of Buenos Aires 20 somethings – how those apps are helping or hindering their opportunities to meet, date, hook-up, and hook-up again.  I wanted this section to be the whole book! I loved seeing the way modern invention and technology was changing people’s love lives that weren’t mine.  I wanted to read about the whole world!

But alas, that was only one chapter. I wished it were more, because I really found that interesting, and would have really sunk my teeth into a book like that. As it stands, Modern Romance is good, funny, if a little predictable. It has moments of real insight and clarity, and Ansari lets some things loose, but it wasn’t a manual I was handing off to friends to devour.

My Grade: C

& Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch. Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Publisher: Bantam Spectra June 2007

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch. Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Publisher: Bantam Spectra June 2007

The Book Itself: This cover is a bit more eye catching than the first installment of this series, with the reds and oranges and fire and whatnot. It definitely lets you know that there is some piracy going on as well.

My ReviewIn his highly acclaimed debut, Scott Lynch took us on an adrenaline-fueled adventure with a band of daring thieves led by con artist extraordinaire Locke Lamora. Now Lynch brings back his outrageous hero for a caper so death-defying, nothing short of a miracle will pull it off.

After a brutal battle with the underworld, Locke and his sidekick, Jean, fled to the exotic shores of Tal Verrar to nurse their wounds. But they are soon back to what they do best–stealing from the rich and pocketing the proceeds. Now, however, they have targeted the grandest prize of all: the Sinspire, the world’s most exclusive, most heavily guarded gambling house. But there is one cardinal rule: it is death to cheat at any game.

Brazenly undeterred, Locke and Jean have orchestrated an elaborate plan to lie, trick, and swindle their way straight to the Sunspire’s teeming vault. But someone knows the duo’s secret–and has every intention of making them pay for their sins.

Ah, sequels. I waxed poetic about The Lies of Locke Lamora not too long ago. I read a book in between reading the first book and this one, but I just had to return to the world I had been so dragged into in the first one.

The thing is, this is not the same world. Fleeing Camorr at the end of the last book, I knew Locke and Jean were in for something new and different in terms of scenery, but while I found Camorr to be complex and fleshed out…Tal Verrar did not do the same for me.

Tal Verrar, a series of ringed islands, lends itself very well to a pirate tale. Which half of this is. The other half has to do with the heist our two lovable crooks are concocting. They set eyes on the Sinspire, basically Las Vegas in a skyscraper, with each floor more extravagant and lucrative than the last. They are going to rob its owner (and penthouse suite occupant), Requin (Locke’s fake name for part of this is Revelle – too many R’s, Lynch!). The first couple hundred pages focus on this job – on how Locke and Jean bamboozle and cheat their way through the various gambling games, weasel their way into Requin’s confidence, etc.

And then another big wig in Tal Verrar pulls them away from all this, poisons them, and tells them they have to go play pirates now.

It’s like two different stories, jammed up next to each other. It works…sort of? I don’t know. I like the Sinspire storyline, and I like the pirate storyline (albeit a little less), but I’m not sure I like them together. When they’re entangled like that, neither gets the attention and fleshing out it deserves.

Our buddies the Bondsmagi are back…for two seconds. They threaten Locke and Jean in a particularly eerie scene, and they throw a baddie their way…but that’s about it. Apparently they feature heavily in the third novel, but they seem tacked on here, when I think that such a powerful and power-hungry enemy should be more immediately threatening.

The piracy part, well….while I love that every pirate ship in this world needs  a woman in a command position and at least one cat onboard to basically be allowed to sail, I wasn’t in love with our at sea setting. There is a lot of shouting out sailing commands, and the seedy pirate town they pull up to just seems too rote. We’ve been there before, in Pirates of the Caribbean, in any pirate-themed novel or book you’ve read, even in The Lies of Locke Lamora, in Camorr! We get a couple of strong female leads in Zamira and Ezri, and we get some epic sea battles. But this section of the book lagged for me. Maybe I’m not a pirate reader, or maybe it got too familiar for me what with the strange beings that haunt the waters below and the mysterious isle that makes men lose their minds, but I didn’t love it. It sounds like I would, what with more worldbuilding, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.

As for how it’s tied into Locke and Jean’s Sinspire ruse…well, that’s a little flimsy. The ending is big and showy, like a magician finally monologuing and revealing his tricks, but the logistics are lost to me. I don’t know Tal Verrar like I knew Camorr because we spent hardly any time there! The Priori are a big deal, but I have to be honest with you, I am not entirely sure who they supposedly are. It’s a political position, and maybe I should have just paid more attention during the info-dumping that fantasy books have to do to get broad concepts like that across, but I struggled with attaching to that concept.

The ending of this installation packs an even bigger emotional wallop. And the winding down of the ruse also ends pretty darn bittersweet. The personal loss, paired with the lackluster outcome of the games these two men play makes for kind of a flat ending.Red Seas Under Red Skies still featured characters that I loved from the Gentleman Bastard’s first run around, but fell a little flatter for me in terms of setting and story.

My Grade: B

& Fridays: Resolutions, Book and Otherwise

Well, happy 2016, everyone!!

This is going to be a good year. I can feel it. It’s something in the air. Or the water. Or the piece of chocolate I’m eating right now.

Whatever it is, I think it’s good. And I hope you feel the same!

In the past couple of weeks, I have given some thought to what I would like to accomplish this year. I am pretty proud of the way I handled 2015. I did join a gym, and I did go (although December was a joke – I let the holidays and planning my party get in the way of working out – oops!), and it did make me feel better about myself. So more of that! There is a yoga studio near my new workplace, so a couple of those classes might be in order. When I thought of something I wanted to work or focus on in the new year, I wrote it down. It helps that I’m still old school and keep a paper planner on hand to keep my mind and days straight. It’s great for the writer and visual person in me to physically write it, to see it on the page.

But before we get to those, let’s recap what I wanted to do last year!

2015 resolutions:

1.) Keep up this blog all year.
Hey, I’m still kicking! Again, after National Novel Writing Month this year, I lagged a bit in the blog writing department – I was so done with frantically writing things! This coming year, I think I should push to have all of November and most of December’s posts planned out before November even begins.

2.) Attempt to write, every single day.
I wrote for a good, solid, 4 months or so, every day. I filled two and a half notebooks, and I wrote it all by hand. And then I stopped. I don’t think for any good reason, really. I picked up again in November, of course, but I actually found the commitment to write every day to be a little stressful. I felt horrible id I didn’t write for two days in a row. And if I wrote a small amount, it was just as bad. My writing goal this year is a bit more lenient this year, while still making me put pen to paper (or mouse to computer screen).

3.) Don’t buy any more writing books.
I don’t think I did? Oh wait, I did but one about writing a book in a month. I featured it in a blog post right before NaNoWriMo. But I did read that one and use some of the worksheets for my novel planning!

Ahhh, my lovely paperback collection...waiting for me on the shelf...calling my name...

Ahhh, my lovely paperback collection…waiting for me on the shelf…calling my name…

4.) Re-read Harry Potter.
Ooooh, didn’t do this one, either. I had forgotten that I resolved to do this! (probably because I didn’t write it down…) I WILL write it down for this year, how about that?

5.) Read 50-60 books.
I read 55! Even when my life is busy and stressful, I find time for books. They relax me. Even when it’s late at night and I should be trying to fall asleep in order to be fresh for work in the morning, I read a chapter. It’s my reward for the day, the thing that makes me feel normal. I will set my Goodreads 2016 goal for 55 books. Let’s see how it goes J

Whew! Not too shabby, I must say! A lapse in writing, and forgetting to re-read Harry Potter…overall, not too bad!

This year, it’s about maintaining and increasing – bring it on!

1.) Grow the blog.

I love all of you early readers, but the truth is: I did nothing to earn you (besides write posts, I suppose!). I have not gone out into the blogging world and commented or linked to my blog. Twitter is set to automatically post a status when I write a new post, but I haven’t done anything to it other than that (I’m not a big Twitter person, but that is neither here nor there). I am getting to the point of really liking what I post here, and keeping it up semi-regularly. I want to share that with more people. And you know, start giving away cool stuff to those of you who read. Yay!

2.) Write 52 stories in 52 weeks.

I think this originated with Ray Bradbury’s quote/challenge: “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” I like this idea for many reasons. I won’t feel as much crazy pressure to write every single day, even when my day has been busy or I’m cranky and/or exhausted and just want to sleep, not read. Also, a story can be any length. Not that I intend to write 52 one-paragraph stories. But if I churn out a shorter story one week, and a longer one another week, that’s fine. But this is a commitment to writing that I think I’ll find more manageable, and more fulfilling: more to show for all of my work, still requiring me to write on a regular basis.

3.) Read at least 7 “classic” novels, or novels from 1970 or earlier

Those numbers are pretty loose and random. But when I look at the statistics of the books I have read on goodreads, nearly ALL of those are from the last five years are so. Not that everything on goodreads is everything that I have ever read. Only the past few years are chronicled accurately there. But that is still a little sad. Not all good literature was written since I have been a bookworm! I need to broaden my “have read” repertoire. What are your favorite “classic” novels? Or simply a novel from the past that really struck you as amazing? What do I absolutely need to read?

I volunteered and organized book drives with Better World Books! Check it out!

I volunteered and organized book drives with Better World Books! Check it out!

4.) Volunteer more.

In high school and college, I devoted a lot of time to community service. In college, I really found a program I loved that benefitted a literacy cause, and I did great things with it and within the community. I loved giving back, but since graduating, I have done very little in terms of community service. I want to change that. Whether it is for a literary or literacy cause, I want to start volunteer again. I have had way to many fulfilling and life changing moments because of it to just stop.

Alright! All that, and re-read Harry Potter, of course 😛 What are your resolutions, my readers? Remember, I go Pirates of the Caribbean style with it: treat them like guidelines, things to keep in mind all year and to strive for, not strict requirements in stone that you must complete to have a successful year. And again: HAPPY 2016!!

& Review: Driving Hungry by Layne Mosler

Driving Hungry by Layne Mosler. Food/Travel Writing. Publisher: Pantheon, July 2015

Driving Hungry by Layne Mosler. Food/Travel Writing. Publisher: Pantheon, July 2015

The Book Itself: Simple and graphic, my catchphrases! The fonts are also pretty darn aesthetically pleasing…

My ReviewA delicious memoir that takes us from Buenos Aires to New York to Berlin as the author, driven by wanderlust and an unrelenting appetite, finds purpose, passion, and unexpected flavor.
 
After putting her dream of opening her own restaurant on hold, Layne Mosler moves to Buenos Aires to write about food. But she is also in search of that elusive something that could give shape to her life. One afternoon, fleeing a tango club following a terrible turn on the dance floor, she impulsively asks her taxista to take her to his favorite restaurant. Soon she is savoring one of the best steaks of her life and, in the weeks that follow, repeating the experiment with equally delectable results. So begins the gustatory adventure that becomes the basis for Mosler’s cult blog, Taxi Gourmet. It eventually takes her to New York City, where she continues her food quests, hailing cabs and striking up conversations from the back seat, until she meets a pair of extraordinary lady cab drivers who convince her to become a taxi driver herself. Between humbling (and hilarious) episodes behind the wheel, Mosler reads about the taxi drivers in Berlin, who allegedly know as much about Nietzsche as they do about sausage. Intrigued, she travels to the German capital, where she develops a passion for the city, its restlessness, its changing flavors, and a certain fellow cab driver who shares her love of the road.

This book is less about getting into taxi cabs and asking the driver to take the passenger to their favorite place to eat, and more about one woman’s search for who she is in three different foreign countries.

I loved the concept of Driving Hungry, but I think I would get more having to do with the concept if I read Mosler’s blog. The book isn’treally about the food, although we get some nice, mouth-watering (or cringe-inducing) descriptions of some of her meals. It is more about each city’s atmosphere and the usually tenuous relationships she has with people there.

In Buenos Aires, we get a lot of Mosler desperately wanting to be great at tango dancing. More than just a hobby in Buenos Aires, our Mosley attempts to get to that effortless, sensual level that tango dancers who have been dancing for years achieve every night of the week. Unfortunately, she suffers heartbreak and setback after setback, having a brief flame with her tango teacher, and leaving several nights from the tango club in tears and blisters.

While I understand that being seen as the clumsy American who lacks the skill and history to ever be good at the tango, and to see every dancer in the place as better than you to be discouraging, I found some of Mosler’s complaints to border on the whiny. Being a tango prodigy takes time and effort over years, sometimes lifetime, and her frustrations and departure from Buenos Aires to find herself in some other way seemed flippant and childish.

The New York section was the darkest. In a city that is often portrayed as The Best City in The World, with so much going on at once, with so many people doing so many things, Mosler bottoms out. She rather inexplicably decides to drive a taxi in New York City (why?Whyyyy?). The stories of the passengers she carries, the overwhelming hardships she faces as a new taxi driver, and even details about how hard it is for even accomplished drivers to drive and own a piece of their business in the city, are fascinating and eye-opening. She has her typical impatient businessman screaming at her to somehow change gridlock traffic. In a particularly low point, she has to use a Starbucks cup to go to the bathroom because she doesn’t have the means (or the parking spot) to find a place outside of the car to do so.

While it was the saddest and darkest (not that the book ever really gets that dark) part of the story, I found the bit on New York to be one of the more interesting sections. I don’t read a lot about the down-on-your-luck New York. Or if I do, it is only so that fictional characters can triumph and Find Their Way in the city. Again, Mosler leaves New York rather defeated, and makes her way to Berlin.

Taking an instant liking to the city, Mosler paints Berlin in a decidedly more positive light. Or maybe it’s just so sparkly because New York sucked so much. She loves the streets, she loves the place she’s staying, she loves the food. And she loves the taxis!

In fact, she meets and falls for one of the drivers. For a few chapters, this book is all about their meet-cute (he takes her on a taxi adventure to eat a dish called Dead Grandma, of all things), their differing personalities, and how that throws some bumps in the road (pun sort of intended) for their relationship.

Berlin is undoubtedly Mosler’s favorite city (and continues to be, apparently – She married that driver and now lives in Berlin). But overall, the book left with me with the impression that flighty Mosler is hard to impress (maybe not food wise – she did try the Dead Grandma and liked it) and for me, hard to relate to. I do love to travel, but Mosler seemed to be constantly trying to find something and not succeeding, bringing the mood down in the process and making her seem whiny sometimes.

I will say that the blog, Taxi Gourmet, is a great resource for food and restaurant ideas in Buenos Aires, Berlin, and New York. If you’re traveling to any of those places, consider checking out her food guides. The book is more about her, and less about the food.

My Grade: C-