Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Well-Read Redhead's Best Books of 2014!

The time has come!  Favorites must be declared!

Today, Month of Favorites participants are jumping in with the Top Ten Tuesday topic over at Broke and the Bookish: Top 10 Favorite Books of the Year.  In keeping with that, I figured there was no better day for me to announce...

The Well-Read Redhead's Best Books of 2014!

If you are a careful reader of my blog (and who isn't, RIGHT?), you may be surprised by some of my choices...and some of my non-choices.  There are books on here that, in my initial review, I enjoyed but maybe wasn't completely gushing over.  And there are books not on the list that I mentioned as potential favorites when I wrote my reviews.  But at the end of the year, when I make this list, I go by what's really stuck with me--after months have passed, what are the books that are still leaving an impression?  Still giving me something to think about?

As in past years, this list is in no particular order, and with links to my original reviews:

1. The Three by Sarah Lotz
I know I said this list is in no particular order, but there might be a reason why this was the first one I threw on here.  I LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS BOOK.

2. Man V. Nature by Diane Cook
I haven't read a collection of short stories this good in a very, very long time.  I find myself thinking about them a LOT.

3. Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult
Is anyone surprised by me putting a Jodi Picoult novel on this list?  Noooooooooooope.

4. What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell
An intricately-woven family drama that explores the many complicated facets of relationships.  Cornwell's ability to smoothly blend several different story angles together still impresses me.

5. Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
If there was ever a bitch that got shit done without caring what anyone else thought, it was Scarlett O'Hara.

6. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I know, jump on the bandwagon about a year late, right?  But it's just so, so good.  A major time commitment, but an epic in every sense of the word.

7. Above by Isla Morley
This book is excellent, but it earned a special bump onto this list because it has the distinction of being the book that I have successfully recommended to the most people after reading it.  "Successfully" meaning they raved about it afterwards, too.

8. The One & Only by Emily Giffin
Emily Giffin is pretty much always a winner for me.  I adore her ability to make readers sympathetic to what would normally be the undesirable side of a situation.  Such is the case with The One & Only.

9. The Memory of Love by Linda Olsson
To quote my own review: "complex characters, surprising twists, and intriguing relationships."  Plus beautiful writing to top it all off.

10. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
I read several good YA fiction novels this year, but Wintergirls has the distinction of being the best.  Anderson's writing is beautiful and poignant, and her handling of the topic of eating disorders is equal parts careful and impactful.

That does it for 2014!  In going over everything I read this year, I realized how many excellent books I enjoyed in the last 12 months.  A truly fantastic year for reading!

What made YOUR best-read list for 2014?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Book Review: The Dark Half by Stephen King


Title: The Dark Half
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Viking Adult
Publication Date: November 1989
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

Thad Beaumont would like to say he is innocent.

He’d like to say he has nothing to do with the series of monstrous murders that keep coming closer to his home.

He’d like to say he has nothing to do with the twisted imagination that produced his bestselling novels.

He’d like to say he has nothing to do with the voice on the phone uttering its obscene threats and demanding total surrender.

But how can Thad disown the ultimate embodiment of evil that goes by the name he gave it—and signs its crimes with Thad’s bloody fingerprints?


My Review:

Such a long journey I embarked upon with this novel!  I started it way back in October, as it was supposed to be my last "spooky" read around Halloween time.  However, things got away from me, and suddenly it was Nonfiction November, and I put this one on the back burner.  However, I'll admit that I also put it off because the beginning of this book was just not doing it for me.

A lot of my initial dislike stemmed from my view of Thad Beaumont (the protagonist).  He was extremely difficult for me to like--he seemed to enjoy talking (at great length) just to hear himself talk, and his wife Liz appeared to suffer from the same affliction.  The two of them together were hard for me to stomach, even as I was supposed to feel mildly afraid for them as their friends began dying one by one.

Around this time is when I took my break from the book.  When I picked it back up in late November, the action intensified, Thad stopped talking so much (thank God), and I felt myself getting into the Stephen King happy place that I know and love.  By the end, I was whipping through pages and completely absorbed in the story.

I did end up enjoying the second half of the book, and the way it wrapped up, though it's worth noting that this novel was written from a unique perspective.  King released The Dark Half in 1989, 4 years after his own pseudonym (Richard Bachman) was outed.  There are many (many!) similarities between King's pen name experience and Thad Beaumont's--the work he wrote under Bachman was darker than his King novels (as Beaumont's novels as George Stark were darker than his Beaumont novels).  He and Beaumont were both teachers...they were both "outed" by random nosy citizens in Washington DC...Beaumont and King are both alcoholics...the list goes on.  Obviously, the idea of the pseudonym coming to life is exclusive to Beaumont, but it is interesting to read this book with the knowledge that King grappled with his own "dark half" at one point in his career.

(Also, I can't help but wish that King didn't model Beaumont too closely after himself, given the whole "Beaumont talks just to listen to his own voice" thing that I was harping on before.  I love Stephen King too much to assume that about him...)

Despite the rocky beginning, The Dark Half ended like the thrilling, horrific King-style novel that I was hoping for.  While not in my top 10 for King's work, I still think it's an intriguing read, especially when you take the King/Bachman backstory into account.

(Oh, and for the faint of heart--you may want to choose a different book from King's canon to try.  'Tis a bloody one!)

Have you read The Dark Half?  Where is it on your list of King favorites?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A 2014 Reading Timeline...#amonthoffaves

Getting this one in right under the wire!  In my defense, Tater Tot's birthday is tomorrow (can you believe it, BECAUSE I CANNOT), so I'm kind of in a birthday-party-preparation frenzy.

Today's Month of Favorites topic is your 2014 reading timeline...when did you read the most/least, in what month did you read the book you liked most/least, etc.  I'm going to keep this pretty simple.

2014 started out rather slow for me, with only 2 books in January.  For good reason...Tater Tot was yet a wee one, so I had much on my plate.  However, I got into a groove pretty quickly after that, and my average for most months was about 5 books.  Less than previous years, but given the drastic decrease in my free time this year, I'd say that's pretty darn good.

July was my slowest reading month, with only ONE book (the horror).  However, I was in the midst of Gone With The Wind for much of that month (I think that was my longest read of the year?), so I had a good excuse.  Plus, you know, summer and enjoying the outdoors and all of that.

I had about 7 months tied with a total of 5 books (my highest), but the month with the most posts was September (10).  I feel like I got into a better blogging groove again in the fall, and September was largely the kickoff for that.  (Though I must say, I look back to 2 years ago when I was posting like 20+ times a month, and just whaaaat?  When did I have that kind of time in my life??)

Right now, I am considering my blogging/reading goals for next year, and wondering how my 2015 reading timeline might look a bit different.  Part of me really wants to push it up a bit and start reading more now that I've gotten into a better routine with the kiddos, but the other part of me wants to take a bit slower...maybe jump into some chunksters, and kind of slow-read for a while (rather than whipping through shorter books, as I tended to do this year).  We shall see.  I've got resolutions to post at the end of the month, and reading goals will be part of that.

So readers, what was your 2014 timeline like?  Do you have times of year when you tend to read more/less?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Book Review: The Race Underground by Doug Most


Title: The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America's First Subway
Author: Doug Most
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: February 4, 2014
Source: ARC received from the publisher for an honest review

Summary from Goodreads

In the late nineteenth century, as cities like Boston and New York grew more congested, the streets became clogged with plodding, horse-drawn carts. When the great blizzard of 1888 crippled the entire northeast, a solution had to be found. Two brothers from one of the nation's great families—Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York—pursued the dream of his city digging America's first subway, and the great race was on. The competition between Boston and New York played out in an era not unlike our own, one of economic upheaval, life-changing innovations, class warfare, bitter political tensions, and the question of America’s place in the world. The Race Underground is peopled with the famous, like Boss Tweed, Grover Cleveland and Thomas Edison, and the not-so-famous, from brilliant engineers to the countless "sandhogs" who shoveled, hoisted and blasted their way into the earth’s crust, sometimes losing their lives in the construction of the tunnels. Doug Most chronicles the science of the subway, looks at the centuries of fears people overcame about traveling underground and tells a story as exciting as any ever ripped from the pages of U.S. history. The Race Underground is a great American saga of two rival American cities, their rich, powerful and sometimes corrupt interests, and an invention that changed the lives of millions.


My Review:

I grew up in an area of Connecticut that is basically the midpoint between New York and Boston on I-95.  I've ridden the T several times, and I've logged many (maaaaaany) hours on NYC subways and commuter rails.  It's hard to imagine either of these cities without their subway systems--with such congested streets, underground travel is quick, affordable, and convenient.  So I was intrigued by a book that offered to bring to life the 100+ year history of subways in these two metropolises.

Doug Most opens the book with an introduction that hints to the important roles that Henry and William Whitney (two brothers from Massachusetts) played in the openings of the Boston and New York subways, respectively.  He then takes us through early attempts at subway designs, the engineering inventions that gradually made them more plausible, and the many struggles that builders and politicians went through in order to eventually make them a reality.  Finally, we see the subways being constructed and opening in each city (which one first? You have to read to find out!).

In terms of comprehensiveness, this book can't be beat.  Most definitely did his homework on this subject, and has provided intricate details that left me impressed by how specific his sources were.  The history of underground travel really is fascinating, and I loved getting this glimpse at how engineering innovations developed quickly within 5, 10, 50 year periods.  Makes you wonder how far we'll come by 2050.  And Most doesn't stop at giving particulars about the subways.  Every major contributor to these projects is introduced with lots of information about their pasts, families, etc., so you really get a human element there as well.

While I did appreciate the attention to detail, there were several structural elements in this book that frustrated me.  First was the formatting, in terms of how the history was unfolded.  As I mentioned before, it is implied at the beginning of the book that the Boston and New York subway systems had their beginnings with the Whitney brothers.  However, as I read on, I felt more and more that the Whitneys were not the central characters in this story.  Yes, they both played notable roles in their respective cities with the subway projects, but in the end, neither of them would be credited as anything close to the "father" of either system.  This left me confused as to why Most chose to structure the book around them, and gave it a bit of a disjointed feel, as many other (arguably more important) players were continually introduced throughout the book.

Possibly because of this odd choice in structure, the book as a whole doesn't flow very well.  There were whole paragraphs in certain chapters that seemed poorly placed, with details that weren't especially relevant to the rest of the section.

Final verdict: if you have a true interest in history, innovation, and engineering, the story that Most provides here is top-notch.  But there is a significant downside in how he chose to structure the book, which does tend to take away from the finer details at times.

Have you ever ridden a subway, reader friends?  Where was it, and what did you think?  Is it a preferred route of travel for you, or are you an above-grounder at heart?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

2014's Best Book Covers (#amonthoffaves)

The Month of Favorites continues!

Today we're chatting about our 10 favorite book covers.  I couldn't tell from the prompt if we were supposed to keep this to books that we read in 2014 (or if it even has to be books that we've read...perhaps book covers we've admired but not yet picked up?), but since it's the end of the year and we're wrapping up, I decided to limit this to books I read in 2014.

However...I've only read 43 books so far this year, and choosing 10 would mean nearly a quarter of the books I read this year would have to have eye-catching covers.  Which is not the case, unfortunately.  So instead, this is my top 5 book covers of books I read in 2014, because I was only honestly able to pick out 5 that seemed exceptional!

In no particular order...

1. Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult  (review)

It's just so pretty and calming.  Sometimes simplicity is all I want from a book cover.

2. The Blonde by Anna Godbersen  (review)

As much as I disliked the book itself, the cover is fairly dramatic.

3. Croak by Gina Damico  (review)

If you've read this book, you'll know that the main character (Lex) is fairly sassy and bad-ass, and this picture sums her up so well.  Plus, you know, scythe.  Kind of disarming.

4. What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell  (review)

Makes me want summer and roller coasters and slurpees.

5. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman  (review)

The image of the girl in the water is beautiful, but also rather haunting.  A perfect fit for this novel.

What say you, readers?  Did you read anything with an especially lovely cover this year?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Starting to wrap up 2014 with...a Month of Favorites!


Gooood morning, reader friends!  It is December 1, and instead of posting a monthly wrap-up for November, I am jumping into the Month of Favorites event, hosted by Estella's Revenge, GirlXOXO, and Traveling with T.  All month, we'll be discussing our favorite books (and book-related things) from 2014.  Since I always do a best-of list at the end of each year, I figured this would be a great way to do it...just all month long instead of one day, because I know you can't get enough of me.

Today we're doing a bit of an introduction:
"About YOU and Your Reading this year (eg. fave genre, fave author, how you read (percentage (%) physical, eReader, audiobooks), when you read, what genre did you read the most from this year, which author was most prolific on your reading list, how many books did you read, give us a clue about what your fave book read this year is – but don’t tell us – let us guess!)"

Well, most of you know a lot about me already, but here goes...

Favorite genre: If I had to pick one (ridiculously broad) genre, it would be contemporary fiction.

Favorite author: Can't just pick one!  Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Jon Krakauer, Audrey Niffenegger, Emily Giffin, Michael Pollan, Gillian Flynn...I'll stop there.

How I Read in 2014:
I broke this into a few different categories.

1. Total books read: 43 (so far!)
(My goal was 40, so I am patting myself on the back.)

2. E-book vs Paper
I read 14 e-books, 28 paper books, and 1 audiobook.  This will come as no surprise, given my struggles with e-reading earlier this year.

3. ARC/Tour Books vs. "Free Range Reading"
I read 15 ARCs/tour books and 28 books of my own choosing.  I made an effort to cut back on ARCs this year, and it seems I did well!  I am looking forward to a few more in 2015 though.  Ready to get my early-reviewing hat back on.

4. Most-Read Genres
21 contemporary fiction, 11 young adult, 5 nonfiction, 3 women's fiction, 2 classics, 1 mystery/thriller.
This, of course, is based on my subjective decision on what falls into each of those genres (a mystery can be contemporary fiction too, but I had to choose one category for each book read).  I was originally surprised at how much YA was there, but then I remembered the Rochester Teen Book Festival--that explains that!

When I read: In tiny snippets!  That's how it feels these days.  I often wake 10-15 minutes before the kids and my husband, just to get a few pages in at the start of the day.  I used to read in the afternoon when Small Fry and Tater Tot had overlapping naps (90 glorious minutes! Shared with housework, but still)...HOWEVER, Small Fry no longer naps.  So now I usually read while snuggling with him on the couch for about 15 minutes during an episode of Dinosaur Train.  :)  At night, my husband and I spend as much time together as possible after the kids go to bed, so I usually don't pull my book out until he goes to sleep...and manage about 3 pages before I conk out myself.  Ha!  But I maximize my reading time as much as possible...and have been known to pull my book out if I end up in a long line at the dentist, or the grocery store, or the post office...

As for my favorite book of the year?  I generally don't pick one favorite for the year--my M.O. is to make a top 10 list (in no particular order), because I find it too hard to choose only one.  However, I've already started thinking about my list, and unsurprisingly, it's mostly contemporary fiction novels.  If you have any guesses on what I loved the most, leave them in the comments!

Here's to a month of favorites, my friends!  How did YOU read this year?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed


Title: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Author: Cheryl Strayed
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: July 10, 2012
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice. 
Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond.  Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.


My Review:

The raves that I heard about this book.  THE RAVES.  Shannon @ River City Reading was the ringleader, but Leah @ Books Speak Volumes was in on it, as well as several other of my book blogger friends...hard to remember them all because THE RAVES all started to smoosh together after a while.  :)  I knew this was a must for Nonfiction November.

Honestly, I was unsure about how I would like this at first.  Excerpts from an advice column?  Can't I get the same thing by perusing Dear Abby?

Answer: no.  Dear Sugar (aka Cheryl Strayed) is not one lick like Dear Abby.

The big difference in Sugar's responses is how she adds (very) personal experience to them.  Most advice columnists give suggestions based on seemingly objective, well-rounded perspectives.  Sugar, however, often gives advice by relating it to specific events in her own past.  This includes her experience with everything from divorce, to child molestation, to affairs, to grieving a loved one, and beyond.  This, paired with her unique tone (best described, I'd say, as "snarky and smart, yet loveable"...she calls everyone "sweet pea," how adorable is that?) gives her columns a flavor the likes of which I've never seen before.  Sugar tells it like it is, moreso than any other advice columnist that I've encountered.

While not every piece in this book will relate to your own life, I'm quite sure that any adult reader will find at least one story here that pulls quite harshly on their heartstrings.  Many of the letter writers are looking for advice on love and marriage, but others are worried about work, friends, children, relationships with their parents, grief after a death, etc.  Every age from high schoolers to 60+ are represented, so you'll find a wide range of perspectives.

While I did fall for this book by the time it was finished, I have to be honest--I was pretty lukewarm about it at first.  I think Sugar's tendency to share so much from her own past was off-putting for me.  I kept thinking, "Is this a tell-all memoir, or an advice column?"  As I mentioned above, many of her personal revelations can be quite shocking, and I think that made me feel like it was teetering beyond what is appropriate in trying to counsel these anonymous letter-writers...it took the focus off of the letter-writer, and put it more on her.  When she gives advice (even without any personal narrative), it is beautiful, eloquent, and tear-inducing, and I often felt that the stories of her past were unnecessary to get her points across.

However, as the book went on, I did become more comfortable with Sugar's level of "oversharing," so to speak.  Her stories illustrate some rather poignant life lessons, and for that, you've got to commend her honesty.  I think once I saw the stories paired with her tone, it all started to flow a bit better, and I fell into the rhythm of her conversations with these help-seekers.

My thoughts on this book are rather complicated, as you may be able to tell (though given the subject matter, I'd say that's rather appropriate).  My overall feeling is that I did enjoy it--Sugar has a way of getting to the heart of the matter that exceeds the abilities of any of her contemporaries, and her advice is truly amazing.  Plus, the book is perfect if you're looking for something that's easy to pick up and put down at will, as each letter is only a few pages in length.  However, sometimes I wished Sugar's guidance was allowed to stand on its own, without the addition of her personal experiences.  I commend her for sharing them, but I didn't always think they were appropriate tools for giving counsel, as they sometimes took the focus away from the contributor's concerns.

I fully expect to be lacerated for this review, but there it is.  :)  I will say that I'm curious about Cheryl Strayed's other work now, though!  And I look forward to getting to know her through her more biographical works.

Have you read Tiny Beautiful Things?  Do you think it's helpful for an advice columnist to add in their personal stories and life lessons, or are they better left at home?
 
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