Saturday, November 28, 2015

Nostalgiareads: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Hello readers and welcome to the first installment of my new blog series, Nostalgiareads! Just as the title suggests, I'll be re-reading some of the nostalgic books from my childhood in an effort to discover old favorites or, worst case scenario, realize that some books are best left to the past.

I figured why not publish a blog post on this most auspicious of Black Friday days, where millions of people forget how thankful they were for everything they had yesterday in favor of rampant consumerism. Not that I can say much because my debit card is still recovering from shock.

When I first conceived of this series, a number of books immediately popped into my head, but the one that I desperately wanted to re-read is the one you'll be reading about today: The Westing Game. So grab yourself a cup of tea, some Thanksgiving leftovers (if you're American that is) and enjoy me blathering about a book from my childhood.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin is a children's mystery book that has won quite a number of awards, most notably the Newbery Medal, and for good reason. The books starts off by introducing readers to Sunset Towers, a new apartment building near Samuel Westing's mansion. Our cast of characters are specially selected to inhabit this apartment building. Sixteen people's lives are changed when Samuel Westing dies and his will labels them as the potential heirs to his vast fortune. Of course nothing is ever that simple and in order to get the money, they have to be the first one to use the clues and solve the westing game. While the majority of the book involves the group trying to solve their respective clues, it also delves into the complexities of each character's life.

The Westing Game sticks out as a nostalgic read because it was one of the books I loved at the end of elementary school. When I was in 5th grade, this was one of the many awesome books my teacher chose for our read aloud time. While other people hated having to quietly sit and listen to the teacher read, I loved it. The mystery of Samuel Westing's clues kept me enraptured and as soon as the class finished this book I went and bought it from the book fair. Like many others that read this book, I identified with Turtle Wexler, the not so pretty girl that felt like a outcast, but she was incredibly intelligent. I'll admit that when I finally read this in the privacy of my own room as a kid, I did tear up a little at the ending.

Now for the most important part of this post: does the nostalgia still hold up today? The short answer is absolutely yes. While the story is needlessly convoluted and sometimes the characters seem a tad one dimensional, I'm totally fine with that since this is a children's book. I figure with a cast of 16 characters, it would be a little difficult for any author to make them all complex.That being said this book broaches topics like insecurity, marriage instability, and of course following your dreams despite outside pressures. I realized during the re-reading experience that this type of mystery novel completely predicted/predated my current love for Agatha Christie novels. In fact, the year after I read The Westing Game,  I discovered my first Agatha Christie book. In this instance, I got the chance to look back and discover where my love of murder mysteries came from. I would recommend this book to kids and adults alike and for me, this book will remain a nostalgia read. Until my next post, enjoy the start of the holiday season. I know I am.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

New Blog Series: Nostalgiareads

Hello readers! I bet this is a bit of a surprise. Normally around this time, unbeknownst to you, I start to work on the mini reviews for my wrap-up post at the end of the month. Today that little bit of constancy changes.

For a while now I've had the urge to start another blog series to keep things fresh around here and to create content you'll want to come back to read. Part of being a book lover and an avid reader is the struggle between wanting to read new books and taking the time to reread old favorites. Since I always have such limited free time, I've always read new books in the hopes of discovering new favorites. Well I've decided to make time for my old favorites. Much like watching favorite movies from your childhood for a dose of happiness and the nostalgia factor, I'll be revisiting some of my favorite childhood/early adolescent books... Hence the name, Nostalgiareads.

Of course some say that revisiting something you once loved will completely ruin it, but I'm going to take that chance. During these posts, I'll be giving a quick synopsis of the book and what makes it a nostalgic read for me. Then I'll discuss whether or not that nostalgia holds up in light of my older, slightly more bitter worldview.

I've already started reading some of the books that I have strong nostalgic feelings towards and I've compiled a list of the rest that I'd like to read. What that means for you is that the first Nostalgiareads post will be released on this blog very soon!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Penny's Music Recommendations: November 2015

November is halfway over and you know what that means. It's time for some more music recommendations. Let's just say if you're anything like me you desperately need something to listen to that isn't that new Adele song. I cringe inwardly whenever I hear the word "hello" now. Enough about that. Here are the songs I've been repeatedly listening to this month.
  • Back To Me by Allison Weiss

Like a bunch of my other favorite songs, I discovered Back To Me through Google Play's Antenna, which is their monthly list of free tracks from new artists. This song has this great upbeat indie pop feel to it, despite the fact that the lyrics deal with lost love. I mean it is a little weird to jam along to a song that mentions "crying in the car to a top 40 pop song," but I do it anyway and you should too.
  •  Wild Heart by Bleachers

After I featured Rollercoaster by Bleachers in my last Music Recommendation post, I sat down and listened to the entire album, Strange Desire. Of course, I found a couple of songs that I love and it was difficult to pick just one to feature in this post. Wild Heart has the same aesthetic as Rollercoaster in that it's an indie pop song that has a strong 80s influence to it. Again this song feels like it was ripped from the soundtrack of a John Hughes movie. In my mind this would be the song that plays in the background during the climax of the movie where the main character is slow-mo running. I bet you'll feel the same once you give this song a listen.
  •  Color by Finish Ticket

Color by Finish Ticket is another song that I discovered through this month's Google Play Antenna list. This song has an indie pop/rock sound that is impossible to ignore or even sit still and listen to. Out of all of the indie pop/rock bands that I've heard through Antenna, Finish Ticket is the one that I'm surprised hasn't had their big break yet. Color is one of those songs that I could easily see playing on a popular radio station, well if those radio stations would stop playing the same 30 songs over and over again.
  •  Emperor's New Clothes by Panic! At The Disco

Panic! At The Disco released another song off of their forthcoming album, Death of a Bachelor, so obviously it had to be on my music recommendations list. Although it almost wasn't because it took me quite a long time to warm up to this song. When I watched the official video where Brendon basically turns into a demon, I had a nice laugh because two songs ago he was telling sinners to stand up and sing "hallelujah." When I listened to the song on that video, I was instantly repulsed and couldn't figure out why until I listened to the audio version I included above. I realized all of the sound effects from the official video like the bones cracking were what caused me to hate it so much. Now I can't get enough of the pop rock sounds and Brendon's amazing vocals.
  •  Ex's and Oh's by Elle King

Ex's and Oh's almost didn't make this list, but the day that I planned to start writing this post, I heard it on the popular radio station in my area. Normally, I don't listen to the radio that often because the songs that play aren't my favorite music genres, but I was completely shocked by this song. Elle King has this great bluesy voice that is hard to ignore. Pair that with a pop rock sound and you have a great song. Ex's and Oh's is also one of those earworm songs that sticks around long after you've heard it. Only listen if you're prepared to hum this all day long. You've been warned.

Now you know about all of the songs I've been enjoying this month and I hope you'll check out a few of them. Since next month is when the holiday season gets into full swing, there might be a special holiday edition of my music recommendations series because nothing helps you get into the spirit of the season quite like holiday music. See you then!

Monday, November 2, 2015

November 2015 TBR

Hello readers! Spooky season is over and now it's time for another crop of books to read during November. I'm looking forward to a month of chilly days and weekends spent on the couch, covered up with a blanket, and reading. This TBR is a little bit ambitious, but I'm ready to start reading. Not to mention I'll have Thanksgiving and the day after off from work, so that gives me a little extra reading time. Here are all of the books that I'm looking forward to reading during November.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Illustrated Edition) by J.K. Rowling

Even though I recently re-read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone during my #livetweetHP event, I can't resist another read now that I have this book. For those that missed my latest book haul, this is the brand new, fully illustrated version of the first Harry Potter book, which is the start of a yearly release schedule of the illustrated series. Despite the fact that I have books that have been sitting in my TBR pile for ages, I just need to read this during November. I can't wait to see all of the glossy, full color illustrations.

  • Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Carry On for me was one of those surprise books that I didn't know existed until it was released and of course I had to read it because it's Rainbow Rowell. I'm just not sure how I stand on the publication of it. Carry On is the story of Simon Snow, the requisite chosen one character in a story about a magical school. What makes this story so weird is that it is the book that the main character, Cath, talks about and writes fanfiction about in Rainbow Rowell's book, Fangirl. I always got the sense while I was reading Fangirl that Carry On was a riff off of the Harry Potter series, so by actually publishing this, does that mean Carry On is a published Harry Potter fan fiction? Also is this the original Carry On from Fangirl or is it the fanfiction story that Cath creates? I'm kind of confused as you can tell, but I'm looking forward to reading it either way.

  • Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray

This month I'm really in the mood for a ya supernatural book and Lair of Dreams is the perfect book for that. I think anything Libba Bray writes is gold and I'm excited to see what other supernatural adventures Evie O'Neill is going to get into now that she has been outed as a diviner. I also love that this book is set in the 1920s. It's a bit heftier page count wise, but I'm sure I'll fly through it.

  • Night Film by Marisha Pessl

This book has been on my TBR list for quite a long time and I've never been in the mood to read it until now. When I was reading S by Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams as well as House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, I was looking for a book with the same type of inventive formatting and Night Film kept popping up as a recommendation. This book is about an investigative journalist that looks into the death of a horror film director's daughter. What makes this book interesting, as far as I know, is that there are pictures and news articles scattered in the text.

  • Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Now it's time for the classic pick of the month!! Even though I read a Jane Austen book a couple of months ago, I've been itching to read Mansfield Park because it's the last Austen book left that I haven't read. You really can't call yourself an Austen fan if you neglect to read all of her books. The protagonist in this novel is Fanny Price, who is living with her rich cousins in Mansfield Park. I'm assuming everything changes when Mary Crawford and her brother arrive in the area. After the mediocre experience I had with my last classic pick, I'm hoping Jane Austen will come through for me.

Those are all of the books I want to read this month. Are there any books here that you want to read? Are there any that you'd recommend? Until the next post, enjoy the beginning of November!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

October 2015 Wrap-Up

Happy autumn readers and welcome to the holiday season yet again! I hope your Halloween was eventful. I spent the day lounging on the couch drinking way more coffee that I probably should've while reading and watching scary movies on tv. It was perfect, if that's what you're wondering. I've now made that ever important switch from pumpkin spice creamer to peppermint mocha for my coffee, so you could say I'm ready for November and December. Before we can get there though, I think it's about time I shared what books I managed to read during October. It's wasn't quite the amount of books I was hoping for, but I did have a bit of a reading slump mid-month, so I'm proud that I managed to completely finish my TBR with a couple extra books thrown in.
  • Ash and Bramble by Sarah Prineas

Of course I started this month by avoiding all of the books I chose for my monthly TBR. Then again no matter how many times I get burned by them, I can't resist a fairy tale retelling, particularly when it's a dark retelling. The crux of this whole book is that the fairy godmother is evil and crafts her own happily ever afters in service to the Story, this sort of evil, omnipresent being that doesn't quite ever get explained but is hell bent on forcing people into fairy tale roles and their corresponding stories. Ash and Bramble focuses on Pen, a girl who can't remember her past, but is forced to become one of the many seamstresses enslaved to the Godmother and tasked with making the garments needed to craft the Godmother's stories. Everything changes when she decides to break free and enlists the help of the Shoemaker, hereafter referred to as "Shoe."

As a whole I didn't necessarily hate this book. I think it started off with a really great, dark premise. Granted Shrek did the whole evil fairy godmother thing first, so there you go. The reason I rated it so low was the kind of shaky world building and of course the usual ya cliches. As you can probably guess there is a whole lot of ridiculous insta-love and even an obnoxious love triangle which develops later on in the story. I also felt like the fairy godmother was a very one dimensional villain. Still I was intrigued enough by the premise to finish it and I can't definitively say whether or not I'll read the companion novel to this should it ever come out.
  • The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Right after I finished The Queen of the Tearling, I just had to start reading The Invasion of the Tearling because this is just one of the best fantasy series I've read in a really long time and it's a ya book no less. This book continues to chronicle Kelsea's struggle as the new queen of the tearling, where she has to deal with rebellious nobles and of course the ever impending invasion of the Red Queen's army from Mortmesne. What makes this book so different from the first is that this story does the majority of the world building. In fact, it felt kind of like a huge info dump, which I wasn't a huge fan of, but I loved finally getting a sense of the world. To clear up the confusion I had from the first book, this world is in fact in the future, but it's a dystopian and regressed society. That's why the story has such a colonial feel to it. The majority of the world building is revealed to readers through a parallel story-line that takes place in the past and stars a woman named Lily. I don't want to give too much away about the alternate story because it would probably start to spoil the book for other people. All I'm going to say is that Lily's life distinctly echoes The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood and Lily reminds me so much of Offred, which is great in my opinion because I loved The Handmaid's Tale. There's also a bit of romance in this book, but it, thankfully, doesn't overshadow the plot. All I have to say is if you haven't started reading this series, what are you waiting for? It's amazing.
  • Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas

October has just been the best month for ya fantasy books for me and Queen of Shadows did not disappoint. This is the fourth book in the Throne of Glass series and deals with Celaena Sardothien's return to Rifthold to dethrone the king and fight the valg invasion of the kingdom. Before I get any further, I think it's important to point out for those that are currently making their way through the series, you really should read The Assassin's Blade, which is the collection of Throne of Glass novellas, before you read Queen of Shadows. This book makes numerous slightly vague references to what happened in those novellas that you won't really understand unless you've read them. Now in this book Celaena has completely embraced her true identity as Aelin Galathynius, the Queen of Terrasen, so be prepared for Sarah J. Maas to exclusively refer to her as Aelin. It had been quite a long time since I'd read Heir of Fire, so the names were a bit fuzzy in my mind, particularly since the majority of them start with the letter A. That mean't when I first started this book I was like "Who is Aelin? Where's Celaena? Is Aelin the fae relative?" A quick google search cleared up all the names for me, so be prepared for that. Maybe it's just me and I need to take more B12 or something.

As a whole, I completely loved this book. Compared to Heir of Fire, it was so action-packed and the story just flew by even with the hefty page count. I also liked how the book continued to be split between Aelin's adventures and Manon's struggles as a coven leader. I know some people think her story is boring, but it really helps to widen the world presented in the story. This isn't just Aelin's struggle anymore. The one problem I had with the story had to be all of the romantic relationships and the way they kind of warped the characters in them. Chaol is such a different character now and I'm not sure how I feel about that. Don't even get me started on Rowan and Dorian's respective relationships or rather lack thereof in this book. I'm trying to be as non-spoilery as possible, so I won't go into great detail. As a whole this is a great addition to the series and it sucks having to wait for the next book to come out.
  • The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

The Rest of Us Just Live Here in summation ended up being all premise with no substance, which is immensely sad. The book blurb asks the question: "What if you aren’t the Chosen One?" and that basically explains the book. The story doesn't center around the Chosen One, but rather Mikey, an average boy trying to live his life in a town routinely torn apart by the adventures of the chosen ones, or what this book likes to call the "indie kids." Every chapter begins with a small blurb summarizing what's currently happening with the indie kids at the same time that Mikey, his friends, and his family are dealing with their own complicated issues which, as is with every ya book that tries to reflect the deep happenings of teenage life, revolve around eating disorders, mental anxieties, and substance abuse. Even with all of that, the biggest problem with this book is that it is so boring. Granted, the everyday lives of people would seem boring next to a chosen one story-line. I just can't excuse it here because the regular characters' lives were full of drama, but none of it was compelling and I had a really hard time trying to connect with any of the characters. This wasn't that long of a book, but I had to force myself to finish it. I think I entered this reading experience with too many expectations, since the premise was so engaging. This is probably pretty mean to say, but I kind of hope that somebody reworks the same idea and makes into a much more enthralling narrative.
  • The Epic Adventures of Lydia Bennet

You had to know the minute that I got this book, I wouldn't be able to resist reading it. In fact, I think I took a break from reading The Rest of Us Just Live Here in order to start and finish The Epic Adventures of Lydia Bennet. This book has been on my Goodreads to be read shelf for quite a long time. I think this was first announced not long after The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet was published. I looked forward to this book much more than its predecessor because it's a whole new story. The first book seemed more like a behind the scenes retelling of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries Series on YouTube, while this book is a completely original story that reveals what happens to Lydia after the events of the web series.

Here Lydia is trying to piece together her life after George Wickham tried to exploit her and their personal relationship for money. The book starts out with Lydia attending summer school in order to make up for all of the classes she missed while dealing with the sex tape and George debacle. This is all in an effort to finally graduate and transfer to a different school. Additionally Mary moves into the Bennet home for the summer and Lydia is seeing a therapist to try to work through everything. Sadly old habits die hard and self doubt rears its ugly head and Lydia is again sent through a spiral of emotions and unfortunate situations. While Lydia's sisters do make a few appearances, the cast of characters is for the most part brand new. Lydia makes new friends, casts off old ones, and of course develops a new love interest all while trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. Granted, there isn't a whole ton of plot to this book, but there are heaps and heaps of character development. I love that this book takes a character that got the shaft in the original Pride and Prejudice and gives her a story of her own. Finally, Lydia isn't a side character that demonstrates to audiences the consequences of going against social mores. She is a brave and dynamic figure. If you loved The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, you definitely need to read this book.
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker

In the spirit of the Halloween season, this book was my classic pick for the month. Despite reading my share of gothic horror stories in college, Dracula never happened to be one of them. Thankfully, this month changed that. Although I'm quite positive everybody knows the story of Dracula, I might as well give a quick summary. Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania in order to help facilitate Count Dracula's purchase of a property. While there he begins to notice the peculiarities of the castle and the count that lives within. Soon Harker realizes that he is actually a prisoner of the Count and tries his best to escape Dracula and the horrifying temptation of the three vampire women. The story then transitions to Mina, Harker's fiancee and her friend, Lucy's life in England anticipating their happy, married lives. The resulting story slowly reveals Lucy's supernatural transformation and the threat that Dracula poses to humanity, particularly the ever fragile female psyche and their burgeoning and dangerous sexuality (Victorian gasps ensue).

Dracula is an epistolary novel, meaning it is told through the letters and diary entries of the primary characters as they record their experiences. I think this format might have been the reason why I had such a hard time getting into the story. When the narrative is so choppy and told from a multitude of perspectives, it's kind of hard to immerse yourself, well maybe that was just me. Anyway, I had such a difficult time reading this book that in order to force myself to read it, I actually explored into personally uncharted territory and listened to an audiobook version that I found on YouTube read by Rob Goll. As a whole the narration was pretty good, except I couldn't take any of Van Helsing's dialogue seriously because the reader used an effected voice that sounded eerily similar to Christopher Walken, which is like my worst nightmare. Additionally, the problem that I run into when I listen to audiobooks is that the pacing is so slow. I feel like listening to an audiobook takes me double the time it would to just sit down and read the physical book itself. As a result, there were periods where I listened to the audiobook and then spent an hour of two reading my physical copy. YouTube also lets you change the speed of the videos you watch, so I often sped up the video to make the chapters go by faster. As a whole, I didn't necessarily hate Dracula, but the story didn't grab my attention they way I was hoping it would. The plus side is I can finally get rid of my guilt over not having read it.

Those were all of the books that I read this October. I hope this inspired you to pick up a few more books for your TBR pile and don't forget to stick around to find out what books I'm hoping to read in November.