2016 in Review: My 8 Favorite Reads and the Reading Slump to End All Reading Slumps

2016 was a tough reading year for me. A couple things happened, both personally and professionally, that left me unable to focus on what I was reading. I would start a book, get halfway through, and then grow bored with it. I kept picking up books thinking, “surely this will be the one to end my slump,” but it never really happened. I finished 2016 dead center in the middle of a slump. So, rather than wallow in self-pity, ashamed of the fact that I can’t write a Best 16 Books of 2016 list (for the pure reason that it would basically end up being a list of the books I read this last year—I only finished 22 books…), I’m going to share with you 8 books that I loved, and 8 books that I started in 2016 and look forward to finishing in 2017.

My reading goal for 2017 is 30 books, but I very much hope to exceed that goal. I have also created a rule whereby I can only read a new book once I have read 3 books currently on my shelf. My book buying reached new heights this last year despite the fact my reading had taken a SERIOUS hit. Here’s to hoping the reading slump ended with 2016!

8 Favorite Books From 2016 (Click links to read my review)

1)      Illustrated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
2)      Illustrated Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
3)      A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold
4)      Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
5)      Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
6)      Mermaids by Patty Dann
7)      The Girls by Emma Cline
8)      Tenth of December by George Saunders (I never got around to reviewing this short story collection, but it was amazing.)

 

8 Books I Look Forward to Finishing in 2017

1)      Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
2)      War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
3)      A Monster Calls by Patrick Nes
4)      Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
5)      Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
6)      Life of Pi by Yann Martel
7)      Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates
8)      In Cold Blood by Truman Capot

Let me know what you read last year and what you plan to read this next year!

Happy Reading,
Mallory

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Illustrated) by JK Rowling and Jim Kay

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I waited a few months to buy the illustrated Sorcerer's Stone after it was published in October 2015 (here's my review), but I wasted no time with the Chamber of Secrets. I pre-ordered it and had it shipped to my door step on publication day. Similar to the first book, I resisted temptation and didn't leaf through the pages to look at the illustrations before I started reading. I wanted to experience the illustrations in time with the story the way Jim Kay intended. This has proven both times to be a wonderful strategy because it adds a whole new layer of wonder to the reading experience. Not only am I reading a fantastic story with Kay's beautiful illustrations, but I have no idea when the next image will appear or what it will be. Towards the beginning of the book I turned the page and was surprised to find two ginormous eyes peering out at me from behind the text. After a moment of shock I remembered they were Dobby's eyes, and Kay was revealing them to the reader the way Harry would have seen them peeking from behind a bush. The whole book unfolded this way, one wonder after the other.

Here is a size comparison of the illustrated version and the paperback.

Here is a size comparison of the illustrated version and the paperback.

Now, for your convenience, I'm going to simply list out my favorite bits and bobs from the book, as well as a few critiques. 

-Just like Sorcerer's Stone, Chamber of Secrets devoted four pages to the streets of Diagon Alley, and they were gorgeous. I spent a long time reading all of the shop signs and looking in the windows. It honestly felt like I was exploring Diagon Alley.

-The use of full black pages with white text to represent darkness throughout the book was extremely effective in drawing the reader into the physical space of the scenes. For instance, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione go to Nearly Headless Nick's Death Day party, the pages go dark allowing the ghosts to glow and luminesce on the page. The technique was also employed for the Forbidden Forest scenes and when Harry goes into the Chamber of Secrets.

-The first book provided portraits of the characters as a way of introducing them to us, so it was fun this time around to see the character's in action. We were able to see two different illustrations of Mrs. Weasley helping Ron go over his school list and bringing in the floo powder for their trip to Diagon Alley. Also, I loved the pencil sketch of Hermione with a determined look on her face and a stack of books heading off to study. Kay was able to dive more into the character's personalities this time around, and it showed.

-One image I loved was the portrait of Draco Malfoy on page 169. We got an illustration of Draco in the first book wearing his Slytherin robes and looking positively diabolical. However, the portrait in COS showed another side of him. Draco looked almost miserable in the image, and his pale blue eyes were piercing. I still hated Draco in this book, but that image was haunting. 

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-One of my favorite full spread illustrations was of Harry falling into Tom Riddle's diary on pages 182 and 183. The vibrant colors exploded off the page. Basically, I would kill for a print of that image to hang on my wall. 

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-From the first chapter to the last, Dobby was illustrated perfectly. He had a grotesqueness to him that was hard to ignore, but his giant ears and bulging eyes were endearing. The final image of him clutching Harry's dirty sock to his chest broke my heart in the best possible way. (Here's a link to a short video of Jim Kay working on the illustrations for the first two books. In it, you'll see a clay model Kay made of Dobby to help with his illustrations. It's adorable.)

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Now, my critiques of this book are less about what was on the page and more about what was missing. There were several images I was really looking forward to seeing that apparently didn't make the cut. This could be because of the time allowance Jim Kay had for this book. In the video I linked above he mentions that he spent two and a half years illustrating the first book and only eight months illustrating the second. With the books growing longer and longer as the series progresses, I'm hoping we don't begin to see less illustrations. 

-First and foremost, it seemed like this book had less illustrations than the first. I didn't tally the number between the two books, but there were several times in COS where I flipped ahead while reading wondering when the next illustration would appear, and I don't remember ever doing that with the first book. For instance, Chapter 11 goes ten pages without a single illustrations and Chapter 17 is fifteen pages long, yet there is only one illustration (aside from the illustration that accompanies every chapter heading) and it is a full layout image of Harry fighting the Basilisk. It's a wonderful image, but it felt a little lonely in the chapter that is meant to be the climax of the story.

-Speaking of the climax, there wasn't a single image of the inside of the Chamber of Secrets, which was really disappointing. I had been looking forward to seeing Jim Kay's take on that space. The book is, after all, called Harry Potter and the CHAMBER OF SECRETS. 

-Also Jim Kay didn't do an illustration of Tom Riddle or of Ginny in the chamber or of Harry stabbing the diary. All of these things are HUGE plot points in the book, yet they weren't represented in the illustrations. It just felt like a missed opportunity to me. We've been able to see Kay's version of all of the main characters, but somehow Tom Riddle didn't make the cut? I mean, spoiler alert, but Tom Riddle is the reason this story is even happening. He set the entire plot into motion. It would be like if Jim Kay hadn't provided an illustration of Professor Quirrell in the first book. It wouldn't have made any sense, and the decision to leave Riddle out made zero sense to me.

-Now, on a smaller scale, I was disappointed that there wasn't an image of any of the petrified students, particularly Hermione. One of the main characters was attacked by the basilisk and it didn't make it into the illustrations? What? It would have been heartbreaking to see Harry and Ron visiting her in the hospital wing, and again, it seemed like a missed opportunity.

-Finally, one of my favorite locations in all of the books has always been The Burrow. I grew up loving the idea of the Weasley's lopsided living quarters, and I adored every second we were able to spend in their space, so it was a tad underwhelming to be given two images of The Burrow that I didn't feel provided any detail. The first being on the cover of the book where The Burrow is seen in the distance in an aerial shot; the second being an illustration of The Burrow at dusk, so the majority of the house is hidden in shadow. The Weasley's house is described so richly in the books, and it would have been really fun to see Kay's spin on the beloved landmark. Fingers crossed it makes it into one of the later books.

Overall, the book was amazing. Re-reading these books with full color illustrations has been a wonderful way to reconnect with a beloved part of my childhood, and I know I'm going to be eagerly anticipating a new illustrated release every October until the last one is published. Though I did have some criticisms, I highly recommend these books to every Harry Potter lover. They are a magical spin on our favorite magical world, and they shouldn't be missed. 

Happy Reading,
Mallory

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

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“Death. It doesn't have to be boring.” 

This line comes from Mary Roach's non-fiction marvel, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and boy is she right. Working as practice subjects for plastic surgery procedures, crash test dummies, and, in instances I hope happened a very long time ago and are never to be repeated, as bite sized honey-steeped confectionery medicine, cadavers are anything but boring. Although, it should be noted that upwards of 80% of all cadavers are used in anatomy labs, being cut open in the name of helping the next generation of doctor's not irreversibly screw up on a living person is still a pretty interesting story to tell around Heaven's water cooler. 

As you can see from the title, Stiff is an exploration of the many different ways human cadavers can be used, almost always to the benefit of the still living. The book was published in 2003, though, so some of the information is out of date. For instance, there are now six body farms operating in the United States (you'll learn what a body farm is when you read the book. Hint: it's not a place to take the children.) However, that is no reason to not read the book because, in addition to Roach's adventures in the current use of cadavers (current in 2003, may I remind you), she also delved into the use of human cadavers throughout history. Which, if I may be blunt, was insane. The only parts of the book that ever made me squeamish happened in the past…because someone had to be the first to try a full head transplant, and it happened during a time when immunosuppressant drugs didn't exist. Yikes.

Speaking of squeamish, this could be a book you don't want to read over breakfast, which I did every single day. Breakfast is my reading time. I can relax with a hot cup of tea and some banana nut oatmeal…which began to resemble decomposing organs and brain tissue by the end of the book. Also, if you think human bodies--even human bodies recently separated from a soul--should always be treated with the utmost respect and care, then this book may not be for you. Cadavers are always people who, while alive, willingly signed over their bodies to science, but the process can seem a little crass when they are hit with a sledgehammer to see how much force a shoulder can stand before it breaks. So, stay away if that idea bothers you.

While this book wasn't the hilarious laugh-fest almost every single person who recommended it to me promised, it was incredibly interesting. Don't get me wrong, Mary Roach made me laugh, but the litany of ways a body can spend it's post-living days isn't exactly the stuff comedy routines are made of. It's a tough subject, and Roach made it just about as funny as it could be, which is to be commended. 

Overall, this book is going to make me a riot at the next funeral I attend. Er--maybe not. Either way, I learned things I never knew I wanted to learn about the history of cadavers, and I'd recommend this book to anyone who watches as many crime shows as I do (A LOT). 

Also, become an organ donor. It's one check of a box at the DMV and you can save someone's life. Plus, what do you really need your kidney's for when you're laying in a coffin or chilling in an urn or being used as compost to nourish a plant? (That was another topic in the book. It's really very interesting. You should read it.)

Happy Reading,
Mallory

All the Time in the World by Caroline Angell

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 I was given a copy of All the Time in the World by Holt Paperbacks in exchange for an honest review.

A jilted composer in New York City, Charlotte takes a temporary position as a nanny to two little boys. However, as her love for the family grows, her temporary position begins to feel permanent. Then, when a death in the family changes the family dynamic forever, Charlotte is forced to choose between her still-promising career as a composer and the well-being of the family she has come to love.

Typically, stories about grief don't interest me. I find there is very little new territory down the avenue of death and dying, so when a story is solely about a death in a family and how the people left behind react, I tend to shy away. All the Time in the World, however, caught my attention. (I think it was the beautiful cover, and I'm not at all ashamed to admit that. Who actually listens to the old saying and doesn't judge a book by it's cover?)

If I'm being honest, All the Time in the World wasn't the most riveting plot I've ever encountered. The death was announced on the first page, so most of Part 1 was spent waiting for the other shoe to drop--for the character to actually die. Then, the rest of the story was devoted to the aftermath of the death. The timeline jumped around--which I do think added an interesting element to the story--but even it was labelled in terms of before and after the death.

This plot, in the hands of a less skilled writer, could have easily been summed up by, "someone dies, the family mourns, and then they try to carry on." In which case, it would have been entirely forgettable. However, Caroline Angell's enchanting characters and witty narration kept me turning the page. Though there weren't too many surprises throughout the story, I still cared deeply about these characters. I wanted Georgie to find his stuffed animal and for Matt to begin to deal with his grief. I wanted Scotty to be a good father and for Patrick to let go of his playboy ways. Most of all, I wanted Charlotte to take care of herself for once. I felt a connection to these characters that kept me wondering, long after I finished the book, "what are they doing now?"

Overall, All the Time in the World was incredibly readable and deeply heartfelt. Caroline Angell's debut novel has labelled her as an author to watch out for, and that's exactly what I intend to do.

All the Time in the World was published on July 12th. Go to www.CarolineAngell.com to read more about Caroline Angell and buy a copy of the book.

Happy Reading,

Mallory

The Girls by Emma Cline

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Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.

When I first heard about Emma Cline's The Girls, I was skeptical. I read Helter Skelter last year, so I didn't quite see the appeal of a fictional story about a Manson-like cult. From what I could tell, the book would be a cheap knock-off, a shadow of the real thing. Why bother? I tried to forget about The Girls, but the amount of people who recommended it to me skyrocketed, the sheer volume of reviews I saw online was insane, and ignoring it became impossible. So, I requested a review copy and was graciously given one by the publisher.

Upon reading the first page, I realized my mistake. Helter Skelter had been a biography. A third party depiction of what went on at Spahn Ranch with Manson and his girls. Emma Cline, however, offered up Evie Boyd. A girl who didn't look like much, but whose insecurity and loneliness would propel her into the arms of murderers. As the reader, I saw Evie's slow, but steady shift into chaos. I watched her life change from one of adolescent displeasure to outright rebellion. Even more, I saw the appeal the cult held for her.

One key difference from the stories told about Manson's cult and the fictional cult of Russell was that Evie wasn't lured in by the raw power and sexuality of the cult leader, but rather of one of the girls, Suzanne. Evie saw everything she wanted to be--desired, powerful, carefree, confident--wrapped up in a shabby bohemian dress and ratty hair. Her desire to be liked, to belong is not unusual in itself. It could easily be transplanted to a high school YA novel with Evie trying to get in with the popular kids. However, in this case, the popular kids are in a murderous cult.

The thing I found most surprising about The Girls was how much I related to Evie. Her almost crippling need to be liked, her desire to be extraordinary. Emma Cline told the truth of being an adolescent with brutal, disarming honesty. Evie really does represent the average 14-year-old girl, which makes the truth of this story so much more powerful. It's so comforting to believe you'd never be capable of murder, that you would have despised Manson/Russell and his band of merry followers. However, Evie shows how easy it is to become wrapped up in something so much more powerful than yourself. How easy it is to lose yourself in someone else.

You wanted things and you couldn’t help it, because there was only your life, only yourself to wake up with, and how could you ever tell yourself what you wanted was wrong?

Some readers complained about the small handful of pages that dealt with the murders. So, if your interest in The Girls begins and ends with the Manson-like murders they'll commit, this book is not for you. However, if you've ever asked yourself, "how could anyone have found themselves wrapped up with Charles Manson?" then this book is definitely for you. Emma Cline tells Evie's story so truthfully it's easy to forget she's a fictional character, rather than an ex-member of the real life cult.

We learn right away in the book that Evie didn't take part in the murders, but we see the way her involvement with the group haunts her well into adulthood. The way people view her as someone vastly different from themselves, capable of horrors. We also see the way Evie views herself. Still with a sharp eye for her own imperfections and faults, Evie must live her life wondering if she would have participated in the murders given the chance. Would she have stopped them or would her desire to belong have carried her into an act she could never take back?

The hatred that vibrated beneath the surface of my girl’s face—I think Suzanne recognized it. Of course my hand would anticipate the weight of a knife. The particular give of a human body. There was so much to destroy.

Happy Reading, 

Mallory

Mermaids by Patty Dann

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Despite what you may be thinking, Mermaids by Patty Dann is not about mermaids. It is the tale (get it, TALE...tail? Man, I'm funny) of Charlotte Flax, her mother--whom she calls Mrs. Flax, and her younger sister, Kate. Mrs. Flax dates around and, when the relationship sours, moves around. Charlotte and Kate are forced to relocate time and time again at the behest of their mother, when all Charlotte wants is to be a Saint and have her baby teeth be worshipped as Holy Relics. This information is presented in the first few pages and the books only gets more hilarious and quirky as it goes.

To be perfectly transparent, I knew the story of Charlotte Flax long before reading this book. You may or, as is more common, may not be aware that Mermaids was adapted into a film in 1990 starring Cher, Winona Ryder, Christina Ricci, and Bob Hoskins. I watched it at some point in my youth and absolutely fell in love. However, it wasn't until recently that I learned the novel even existed! So I bought the novel as soon as I could and devoured it (it's only 147 pages, so that didn't take long).

Now, having enjoyed the film and read the book, I can say without a doubt that the stories are identical. Very little was changed or left out in the adaptation from book to film, and I think that's because nothing needed to be changed. Patty Dann does a great job of conveying to the reader exactly who her characters are in one sentence. For instance, the novel opens with the line, "Mrs. Flax was happiest when she was leaving a place, but I wanted to stay put long enough to fall down crazy and hear the Word of God." It is rare to come across a first line that perfectly encapsulates the tone of a novel and its characters.

As lovely and fun as the book was, there were times where I felt the author could have gone into more detail. Patty Dann's direct style of narration provided enough detail to set the scene, but she rarely lingered and it caused the book to feel a little hectic at times. However, the characters that people this book and the setting Dann placed them in are vivid enough to overlook this issue. Mermaids may not have any actual mermaids, but it is a magical read all the same.

Happy Reading,

Mallory

 

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

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I was surprised by Shatter Me. It's a young adult dystopian novel with the classic formula: a young teen girl with a special ability; a loyal, loving, and, if we're being honest, somewhat useless male sidekick; and a Big Evil who rose to power through fear and deception. I walked into Shatter Me expecting this formula, so this wasn't the surprising part.

What surprised me, then? My curiosity with the story.

I've read a lot of young adult trilogies with this same formula, so it is pretty hard to surprise me. I can appreciate the story and the characters, but I ultimately know how it will turn out. The thing with Shatter Me is that I'm not exactly sure how this story will turn out. I'm not sure how Juliette's power will become a strength and help her defeat the Big Evil. I'm not sure if Adam--the loyal and useless male sidekick I mentioned before--will remain Juliette's beau throughout the whole book series. And I'm especially not sure if Warner--the Big Evil--is really so evil. Honestly, there has been very little evidence to support these thoughts of mine, but there are subtle hints in the writing that maybe things aren't as they seem. THIS has been refreshing. This curiosity propelled me through the first book and I'm sure will continue to push me through the second and third.

My only complaint is the writing style. It felt overly flowery at times, almost melodramatic. It was the textbook definition of purple prose. Other times, though, the descriptions opened my eyes to the scene. Painted a picture that stayed with me after I closed the pages. Descriptions like:

"I always wonder about raindrops.

I wonder about how they're always falling down, tripping over their own feet, breaking their legs and forgetting their parachutes as they tumble right out of the sky toward an uncertain end. It's like someone is emptying their pockets over the earth and doesn't seem to care where the contents fall, doesn't seem to care that the raindrops burst when they hit the ground, that they shatter when they fall to the floor, that people curse the days the drops dare to tap on their doors.

I am a raindrop."

For every problem I had, there was something else drawing me in. That should make this book a wash--a 5 out of 10 on my scale. But somehow, this book lodged itself in my brain and refused to leave. I wouldn't say it's a favorite and I wouldn't adamantly recommend it to anyone who didn't already like dystopian novels, but it's still worth reading.

Happy Reading,

Mallory

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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My relationship with Neil Gaiman has been an interesting one.

First, I love his voice. Not his actual voice, his writing voice. He writes in a uniquely Neil Gaiman way that no one else could ever do properly.

Second, he wrote one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who ever, The Doctor’s Wife.

Third, I haven’t liked all of his books. I read The Graveyard Book a few months ago, and while it was overall interesting, I wasn’t in love with it. I tried to listen to Coraline on audiobook and got a bit bored, though there is every chance that was because I wasn’t in the mood to read a supernatural children’s book and not because it was a bad book. I started American Gods, but never finished. The rest of his books have yet to make it to my TBR pile.

Fourth, he is one of my favorite writers. Now, you may be thinking, “but…you just said…huh?” That’s fair, but let me explain. I spend a good chunk of time watching author interviews. Listening to writers talk about writing gives me warm feelings. I don’t know a lot of writers personally, so interviews are my lifeline, my way of realizing that other people in the world feel the same way as I do. Neil Gaiman’s interviews are the best. He has said some of the most profound things about writing, seemingly on the spot, and he inspires me to read more, write more, and never be afraid to take a chance. So, I took a chance on The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

***

Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is childhood. The wonder, the terror, the joy, the innocence. Ocean put words to feelings I’ve always had, but never knew how to express. And to me, that is the definition of good writing.

Was it the best book I’ve ever read? No. Very few books are, after all. But was it beautiful? Was it suspenseful and scary and all too familiar? Absolutely.

A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse where she once lived, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

The biggest selling point to Ocean is its length. It sits at just under 180 pages, making it a very quick read. In fact, even if you only read for thirty minutes before bed, you could have it done within a week. Very low stress, very low risk.

The book opens with an epigraph from an interview with Art Spiegelman: “I remember my own childhood vividly…I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Never in history has there been a more fitting epigraph for a novel. The entire book is an adult narrator remembering his childhood—dissecting how such unbelievable things could have happened in his life, and pulling apart the relationship between adults and children. All too often adults see children as oblivious—small creatures with small brains who don’t understand anything about the world around them. If Ocean accomplishes one thing, it is debunking that myth. We see the narrator grappling with very adult situations and emotions, oftentimes better than the adults around him. One of my favorite quotes from the book is:

“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

Oceans is a reverse coming of age novel. Rather than showing a child growing up, it shows a grown-up becoming a child again. And, despite what the world says, it’s a very good thing.

“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”

Happy Reading,

Mallory

A Mother's Reckoning by Sue Klebold

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To read my review of Dave Cullen’s Columbine, click here.

To watch Sue Klebold’s recent interview with Diane Sawyer, click here.

To read the first chapter of A Mother's Reckoning, click here.

***

When adults do terrible things, they are monsters. When children do terrible things, their parents are monsters. This is a fact Sue Klebold knows all too well. On April 20, 1999, her son, Dylan Klebold, and his friend, Eric Harris, opened fire at Columbine High School, killing 13 and injuring 24. Then, when the carnage was finished, they took their own lives.

The world’s vitriol is no doubt the reason for Sue Klebold’s almost 17 years of silence. The months and years after the Columbine tragedy were ruthless towards the shooter’s parents, and, despite the atrocities their sons had committed, they were still in mourning. However, with her memoir, A Mother’s Reckoning, Sue works to share her experience with the world, to show other parents how she watched, unaware, as her son sunk into a bottomless depression, and to finally, after almost two decades of abuse, stand up for herself.

Sue was at work when she got news that something was wrong. By the time she drove the thirty miles home, the entire country was watching in horror as students fled from the building, ducking behind police cars to avoid the gunfire raining down from the windows. As detectives ushered her and her husband out of their home, Sue imagined that her old life, the one with her husband and two boys, was still salvageable. She believed Dylan would come home and explain all of this—hadn’t he talked of a senior prank not long before? Surely that’s all this was, a prank gone awry. As the day turned to dusk, though, and news of his death, and the deaths of thirteen others, trickled down to her, Sue began to realize she would never be able to gather up the broken pieces of her former life.

In the span of 24 hours, Sue went from being the mother of two healthy, happy boys, to the mother of a monster. She was forced to grapple with not only her shy, likable son’s horrific crimes, but with his suicide, as well. It was then, when her life had become an unknowable puzzle of agony and despair, that the world turned its back. Every major publication implicated her and her husband as the reason for her son’s crimes. They were accused of abusing Dylan, being too lenient, and being too strict. People said they didn’t spend enough time with him and that they were over protective. With the two shooters dead and unable to be brought to justice, it was their parents who became targets.

None of this made sense to the Klebold’s, though. By all appearances, they were the perfect American family. They ran a two parent home, were decidedly anti-violence, refusing to own any guns, and moved to the mountains so their boys could spend time in nature. Tom Klebold coached Dylan’s little league team and worked from home, so he was always there to share an after school snack. Sue worked with disabled college students, often bringing Dylan to work with her, teaching him by example the kind of compassion he should show the world. However, across the porcelain complexion of their perfect family, small cracks began to form, fissures where things didn’t go quite to plan. Due to a lifetime of daily journaling, Sue has a written record of the final months of Dylan’s life, entries where she notes his crabbiness or his tendency to withdraw to his room more often. However, these same entries also contain what would become her deepest regrets—the tendency to write off his mood swings as typical teenage behavior; her distraction with her older son, who she believed was in danger of falling through the cracks because he couldn’t maintain a steady job and seemed to be floundering; her and Tom’s belief that Dylan’s brush with the law (he and Eric Harris were caught stealing computer equipment from a parked van and required to complete a diversion program) was nothing more than a teenage boy’s impulsive mistake.

Since the Columbine tragedy, Sue has done extensive research on teen suicide and teen depression. She has poured over countless books, attended support groups, and helped organize events to raise money for mental health organizations. Knowing what she knows now, she believes she could have helped Dylan. She believes she could have saved him and, potentially, stopped Columbine from happening. The trouble is she didn’t know what she knows now. Even scarier, with one in five teenagers saying they’ve had thoughts of suicide, the majority of parents don’t know the trademark signs of teen depression. That is one problem Sue Klebold feels she can fix. She couldn’t save her own child, but she can help educate other parents so they can save theirs.

Her memoir, both poignant and haunting, tells the story of the myriad ways she failed to see her son’s pain, and shares the hard truth that it could be happening in any home in America.
 

Buy a copy on Amazon

All proceeds will be donated to mental health organizations and suicide prevention.

So Long,

Mallory

Nightfall by Peter Kujawinski and Jake Halpern

I heard about Nightfall by Peter Kujawinski and Jake Halpern several months ago and had been unable to get the book out of my head. The premise—an island that experiences 14 years of day and 14 years of night—had me instantly intrigued, and I finally relented and purchased the book despite the ho-hum reviews I’d read online.

Upon receiving the book and telling my husband about it, he informed me that Isaac Asimov wrote a short story/novel entitled Nightfall where a civilization has experienced endless sunlight and is being threatened with the fall of darkness. Eerily similar ideas…though I found no mention of it in the acknowledgements section of Halpern and Kujawinski’s novel. Despite these similarities, the two books seem to dive into very different directions with the idea, so I don’t feel the authors have done anything particularly wrong, it is just something worth noting before moving on.

Okay, so my expectations were slightly high because I found the idea to be so interesting, but I don’t think that is the reason I ended up so disappointed. Frankly, I think the book failed to deliver. It is the classic case of great idea, poor execution. I will expand on why I disliked the book, but I’m going to talk briefly about a few things I did like.

The basic plot outline works well. (Two of the main characters, Marin and Kana, have to go looking for their missing friend, Line, thereby missing the boats carrying people from the island. Upon being left behind, they have to fend for themselves against the creatures emerging from the darkness and find their way off the island.) There is a natural ordering of events and I think the pacing was really well done. If other aspects of the book had matched up, I think I would have found myself downright hooked.

The rituals surrounding the islanders leaving Bliss (the name of the island) were also a nice touch. Every family had to decorate the home the way it was when they arrived on the island, they had to rearrange furniture and clean everything, and then they had to spray lime juice around the house to get rid of their scent. The entire time this is happening, the reader knows they are doing it to hide their presence from the night creatures, but the characters in the book have no idea. It gives the reader something to look forward to, which ultimately kept me reading.

Now, for the things that weren’t so great.

My biggest complaint by far is that there was very little tension. The pacing of the story and the set up for the creatures worked well, but the downfall came in the narration. Rather than sitting in a scene and building tension, the authors just came out and explained what was happening, then, when it was over, the characters moved on to the next task. There was very little reflection, and the reader wasn’t fully aware of what the characters were thinking during these scenes, so there was a disconnect between the reader and the characters. Plus, plot-twisting news was often delivered as if the character were relaying the weather. So, as the reader, I knew it was huge news, but I didn’t feel like the characters reacted properly.

Another issue was that the characters just seem to inherently know things that I didn’t feel they should know. (I don’t want to be spoilery here, so I’ll try to explain it without any key details.) When one of the main characters began going through something pretty big (and totally unexpected), they just knew that it was happening, even though it was a pretty crazy thing to be happening. Then, once they realized it was happening, they didn’t question it or even mourn. They just accepted it and continued on with the mission. It felt clinical and devoid of emotion, and it wasn’t the only place in the book to feel like that. Sometimes it seemed like the authors were too concerned with the plot and not enough with character development.

The last, and probably least problematic, problem is that the world itself felt flat. This island had supposedly been inhabited by humans (during times of daylight) for a very long time, but their rituals felt contrived and not like long-standing traditions. It was easy to see that the rituals were used as a plot device, as a way to set up the story later and keep the plot moving forward. Instead, I would have liked to be given a more fleshed out version of this world, to feel that it could be a real place with real traditions and real people in danger.

Overall, I continued reading the story relatively easily, being drawn along by my own curiousity at how it would end, but there is definitely a huge lack of tension and suspense. For an idea that sat in my brain for months, the authors failed to deliver. I would recommend this book for younger readers, though.

Happy Reading,

Mallory

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I picked up Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut on a whim. The only thing I knew about it was that Kevin Bacon’s character in Footloose really liked it. (Tell me I’m not the only one who remembers that scene?) So, I went into it with no idea of what to expect, and I kind of liked it that way. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t research the book prior to reading. I didn’t read reviews or check the Goodreads rating. I did what people did before the internet and simply read it.

Now, here is the tough part. I have no idea how to say what I want to say about this book. Literally, no idea. Reading it felt powerful, but it’s not a feeling I can accurately describe. I knew I was reading something worthy of being read, but why? I have no idea. Maybe its Vonnegut’s shocking use of language or the cut and dry way he discusses violent death as though it is normal, because in war, I guess it is. Maybe it’s because I live in a country where wars are what happen on other continents across the seas. Where bombs and gunfire are only in the movies. Where dead bodies littering the streets is something I see only in my worst nightmares. Kurt Vonnegut brought those things from lands far away into my home and confronted me with them in a way I’d never been confronted before. Maybe that was it. I can’t be sure, but I am sure about one thing: I’m better for having read it.

It’s not rare that I say that about a book, because, when you love literature the way I do and read it often, you stumble upon a lot of books that leave you with something you didn’t have before. A small picture of humanity of beauty of pain that changes the way you experience a previously unknown corner of the world. However, though it may not be rare, it isn’t something I say lightly. Walking the winding, PTSD riddled life of Billy Pilgrim, from the bombing of Dresden to his honeymoon suite with his new wife to his time on the alien spaceship of Tralfamadore, felt like a privilege. A deeply personal glimpse into a mental illness that, after learning of the horrors he experienced, felt less and less crazy and more and more rational.

PTSD is how I interpreted the book, at least. The way certain sights, sounds, or emotions could send him from one time to another seamlessly. As I said before, I didn’t do any research, I didn’t have any idea what the book would be about, and so I didn’t go into it as I do with most classics, knowing the themes, the common interpretations, the motifs. Instead, I sussed them out for myself, making up my own mind, and writing copious amounts of notes in the margins. It felt freeing, really, being able to break away from what I’m sure is a full, illustrious literary history. Being able to pick it up as if it were the day after it had been published and I’d simply found the cover intriguing.

There are a million things to say about this book, but I don’t have time to write them all and I’m sure you don’t have time to read them. So, I’m going to stick to the highlights. For me, walking away from this book, the most powerful thought is that Billy Pilgrim saw so many horrors, so much brutality and bloodshed and pain on earth, he had to leave on an alien spacecraft to make sense of it. Sure, it can be assumed his time on Tralfamadore is a confusing fiction playing out in Billy’s head, but that doesn’t make it any less real (did anyone else hear the Harry Potter quote when they read that?). He sought solace from a pain he couldn’t explain and no one else could understand, so he created another race, an alien mentor who could explain to Billy that, “when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.” They tell him that a corpse is just “in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.” Leading to Billy saying “So it goes” after even the most grisly deaths occur. (Fun fact: he says “So it goes” 106 times in the 215 page novel.)

Maybe now that I’m finished and I’ve written this review I’ll go back and read what literature professors and critics had to say about it. Maybe I’ll discover that my interpretation was completely off base. Though, on the other hand, maybe I won’t. Isn’t that kind of the beauty of literature—of any art, really—that it can mean one thing for one person and something completely different for someone else?

Either way, I’d love to know what your thoughts are on this book! Comment down below if you’ve read it and tell me why you think Billy Pilgrim is “unstuck in time” and how much of his story you think is fact or fiction.

If it isn’t already obvious, I highly recommend this book.

Happy Reading,

Mallory

January Wrap-Up and February TBR

January Wrap-up

One of my New Years Resolutions for 2016 was to read one book per week for the entire year (i.e. 52 books). Now, this is a minimum goal, so I’d like to ultimately read more than 52 books this year, but we’ll have to wait and see how it goes. For the month of January, I met the goal exactly, reading four books.

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1) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Illustrated) By J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay
My review is here, but suffice it to say, the illustrations in this book were beautiful and amazing and worth every stinking penny. I plan to buy the illustrated edition of every book as they are released. 

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2) Scary Close by Donald Miller
As far as I’m concerned, this is the best relationship book someone could read. There are a lot of books out there that offer advice on ways to “keep your spouse happy” or “keep the spark alive,” but Donald Miller blows past those surface level issues and gets right to the root of the problem: our own issues with intimacy. Most relationship problems boil down to an intimacy issue and Donald Miller knows it, explaining what everyone can do to enrich the relationships in their lives, whether it be with family, friends, or significant others. He doesn’t make it sound easy, but relationships rarely are. My review is here.

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3) Winter by Marissa Meyer
Winter is the final installment of The Lunar Chronicles series, and it may have been one of my favorite books in the entire series. If you haven’t read The Lunar Chronicles, then you should! They are futuristic retellings of classic fairytales, featuring a cyborg Cinderella, a computer hacker Rapunzel, and a Snow White who lives on the moon and has the ability to control people with her thoughts, but doesn’t, and goes crazy. It’s wild and inventive and endearing. Read my review here.

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4) Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Technically, I haven’t finished this book yet, but I will! I’m currently halfway through it and it is blowing me away. The only thing I knew about Slaughterhouse-Five before reading it was that Kevin Bacon liked it in the movie Footloose, so I went in with very few expectations, but an underlying dread that I would hate it. Fast forward to now, and I’m questioning whether it will become one of my favorite books of all time. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, though, because I still have to finish the second half. My review will be up early next week, so keep an eye out!

February TBR

After a very successful January, I have high hopes to continue meeting my reading goal in February, so here are the four books I’m excited/hoping to read next month.

1) In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Despite the fact that this book is one of the best-selling true crime novels of all time, and despite the fact the crime this book is based on took place in my home state of Kansas, I have yet to read this book! So, I have big plans to change that next month. I’ve really been enjoying true crime novels the last few months (Columbine by Dave Cullen; Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi), so I have no doubt this book will be just as enjoyable. Well, as enjoyable as a book about an innocent family being murdered can be, anyway.

2) Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs
Reading this book has been a long time coming. I went to an author event with Ransom Riggs (and his awesome author wife, Taherah Mafi) when this book came out at the end of September, but I still haven’t read it! That will change this month. Library of Souls is the final book in Riggs’ Miss Peregrine trilogy about children with peculiar gifts who run rampant through time from scary monsters. (It’s more complicated than that, but I’m paraphrasing.) I loved the previous two books, but they did take me a little while to get into, so I’m hoping I don’t have that problem with this final book.

3) A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold
So, I said earlier that I read Columbine by David Cullen. Well, Sue Klebold is the mother of one of the Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold. For the first time since the tragedy, she is speaking out about her experience following the tragic events of Columbine, and how she was left to deal with not only the death of her son, but the unspeakable violence he left in his wake. If you haven’t read her 2009 essay for O Magazine, “I Will Never Know Why,” then I suggest you do. It’s powerful and heartbreaking, and I expect nothing less from her book. It comes out February 15th and I fully intend to begin reading it that same day.

4) Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
After a month of rather bleak reading material (I’m talking murdered families and school shootings), I think it may be nice to sit down with something a little less heavy. So, I’m finally going to crack open Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. Honestly, I hated The Catcher in the Rye, so my hope for this book is to finish it.

Let me know if you’ve read any of the books on my list, and let me know what you’re reading/planning to read in the comments!

Happy Reading,
Mallory

Winter by Marissa Meyer

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Winter is the final installment of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer. If you haven't read the other books (Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress), then you should probably do that first! 

First, a brief summary:

"Once upon a time, in the future...The Lunar Chronicles are futuristic retellings of classic fairy tales. In Cinder, a teenage cyborg (half human, half machine) must deal with a wicked stepmother, start a rebellion against the evil Queen Levana, and decide how she feels about a handsome prince. As the series continues, Cinder forges alliances with Scarlet, a spaceship pilot who is determined to solve the mystery of a missing loved one -- with the help of a magnetic street fighter named Wolf; Cress, a computer hacker who is imprisoned by Queen Levana; and Winter, a princess who's in love with a commoner, and who discovers that Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress may hold the key to saving her kingdom -- and the world."

Each book in the series adds a new fairytale layer into the previous story. (Just imagine a big heaping pot of fairytale gumbo and you are on the right track.) Cinder begins as a futuristic retelling of “Cinderella”, Scarlet adds in a dash of “Little Red Riding Hood”, Cress throws in “Rapunzel”, and Winter finishes with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”. So, by the end of the series, there is an entire cast of fairytale characters trying to find their happily ever afters.

There were so many times when reading that a new character was introduced and I caught myself thinking, “No, not another one. I don’t care about this character. I want to know more about [insert character here].” However, not long after, I’d be completely enthralled in the new character’s storyline and couldn’t imagine the story without them. That is part of the genius of these books. They are retellings of stories you have known forever, but they are so fresh and interesting that you find yourself on the edge of your seat when Prince Kai picks up Cinder’s cyborg foot from the palace stairs and when Winter takes the candy apple tart from the old lady in the woods.

Also, the female characters in this series are not the feeble damsels in distress we know and tolerate. No, they are tech-savvy computer hackers, fearless leaders, and willing to sacrifice themselves for their friends and the greater good. Rarely in this series does a man swoop in to save one of the ladies. In fact, on some occasions, the male characters are hindrances to the plan, if not downright useless. Now, I’m not saying the male characters aren’t important or dynamic, because they are, but the women really shine.

If I had to have one complaint, it would be that there can occasionally be a general lack of tension. However, I think that kind of goes along with the fairytale territory. If there is one thing everyone knows about fairytales, it’s that the good guys live “happily ever after.” So, there were times when a main character would be in a seemingly inescapable trap, surrounded by the enemy, and I’d think, “They’ll be fine. It would be way too sad if they died, and THAT would not be happily ever after.” That being said, though, I was on the edge of my seat for the last 700 pages of Winter. The main characters were split up, imprisoned, poisoned, stabbed, shot, nearly drowned, brainwashed, experimented on, and much more. It was insanity!!

Overall, this series delivered in a very real way. All I can say is that I’d highly recommend it to most people. Especially those who love fairytales, Disney movies, or the tv show Once Upon a Time!

Happy Reading,

Mallory

Scary Close by Donald Miller

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I received Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy by Donald Miller as a Christmas gift, and I’m extremely grateful I did, because I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise. At first glance, it gives off a self-help book vibe, and I typically run in the other direction when I come across books like that. I’m not sure why, but the idea of being seen reading a self-help book embarrasses me. I guess I’m afraid people are going to realize I’m not perfect (*GASP*). Either way, I did read the book and I’m officially much more open to reading self-help style books in the future. However, I don’t want you to leave thinking Scary Close is a self-help book, because it’s not.

Donald Miller is a memoirist. He uses his personal experiences to uncover a larger truth in life and share it with others. For instance, when someone gives you advice, you don’t want to hear that they heard it from the friend of a friend. No, you want it straight from the horse’s mouth. That’s what Donald Miller does. He speaks to the reader like a friend, giving them the highs and lows of his past in hopes they will come away from the conversation a better person, and, truthfully, I believe he nails it.

To give you some background, I have a bit of a checkered past when it comes to relationships. I had a falling out with some of my closest friends when I was fifteen, and then went through years of mean girl-style bullying. So, romantic relationships were the only thing in my life that made any sense to me. I didn’t feel capable of holding onto my friends, but I never had any trouble getting a boyfriend. So, that’s what I did. I’d use relationships to give me the confidence I felt I was lacking. If I had a boy around to tell me I was pretty and worthwhile, I was happy. However, self-doubt and manipulation are not the building blocks to a successful relationship. So, as soon as any relationship started to get serious, I bolted. I was like an adrenaline junkie, constantly searching for the next high, the next rush. I had a string of very sweet boyfriends all through high school with countless numbers of non-official boys in between, and I’m genuinely not proud of it. I’ve been married for nearly three years now and I still think about how many people I hurt trying to make myself feel whole.

Thankfully, though, I met my husband when I was relatively young—only seventeen. For the first few months he felt like every other boyfriend. He was always around to tell me I was pretty and worthwhile and desirable, but then he started to push, to dig deeper. He challenged me to move beyond a surface level relationship, and I panicked. I dropped him the way I’d dropped countless guys before, and tried to move on quickly to the next. The problem was I started to desire the deeper relationship he’d been pushing me towards. After several months, I came crawling back. I told him everything about my past, about the rejection I’d experienced with my friends, about the string of guys I dated, and about being afraid of going deeper in fear I’d only find rejection. He understood, he even sympathized, but he didn’t take me back immediately. We spent the next few months pursuing a friendship, meeting in public places, getting coffee, and talking. We did nothing but talk for months. Then, eventually, he let me back in. I knew then, three months into being 18-years-old, that I’d found the man I was going to marry. And now, at 23, I can confidently say I’ve never had a moment of doubt.

The story Donald Miller tells in Scary Close is similar to mine, and, I suspect, similar to a lot of yours. So many people deal with intimacy issues. These can span from fearing intimacy to jumping into intimacy too quickly. Miller deals with both types and everything in between. He begins at the personal level, discussing the masks we all wear in society to be accepted (the mask of humor, intelligence, or beauty), and then progresses into friendships and, ultimately, romantic relationships.

Overall, Donald Miller masterfully examines what it takes to connect with those around us. Whether you are single and looking for a partner, or you’ve been married for thirty years, this book is worth the read. I know the advice of a 23-year-old who has only been married for three years isn’t worth much to many of you, but I know a thing or two about intimacy issues, and I wish I’d had this book to read when I was struggling.

Happy Reading,

Mallory

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Illustrated) by J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay

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*I'd like to preface by saying this review is less of a review and more of a rave/discussion of my experience reading the illustrated edition. That is all.

As many of you probably know, I'm a huge Harry Potter fan (because, honestly, who isn't?!)! So, it was a pretty big no-brainer for me that when I came into some money over Christmas I HAD to buy the illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Then, it was another no-brainer that it had to be the first book I re-read and reviewed in 2016! I decided as soon as I purchased the book I wasn't going to look at it until I was ready to read it. (No spoilers!) I wanted to experience the illustrations in order and with the story. Honestly, this was nearly impossible. I caught myself picking up the book to rifle through the pages countless times, so I finally broke down and started reading it the night I bought it, leaving another book I was working on half finished (oops). Anyway, I was immediately met with gorgeous watercolor paintings that I actually looked up on Amazon to see if I could purchase and hang on my wall! 

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There were many illustrations that spanned two pages, some that wove around the text, and others that were simple illustrations in the corners of the pages. It was very easy to see how much fun Jim Kay had with the task of illustrating this book. He remained true to the whimsical nature of the characters and the story line, but definitely injected his own imagination into the drawings.

One of my biggest concerns when purchasing this book was that it was going to feel just like the movies, because, really, when stepping into a franchise as large as Harry Potter, it would be very easy to stick to the images readers are familiar with. However, Jim Kay did not do that. Sure, he didn't give Harry blonde hair or make Snape a hunk, but he tweaked the characters and settings in noticeable and interesting ways, which was a real palette cleanser for this reader. Don't get me wrong, I love the covers of the original books, all of the movies, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, BUT it was also really nice to see this world that is so fully fleshed out in a new light.  Just when I thought Hogwarts couldn't surprise me anymore, it did, and it was really refreshing.

Another fun addition were the drawings at the beginning of every chapter. The chapter titles along with the illustrations provided a teaser for the next chapter that made it almost impossible to put the book down (even though I was re-reading and knew what was going to happen)! 

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However, the chapter illustrations are also where some of my only real critiques come in. Several of the chapter headings were downright dull. I'd turn the page, excited to see what the next illustration would be, and find myself less than impressed. For instance, what does this dentist office worthy landscape have to do with Nicolas Flamel?

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How are these moths the best thing he could come up with for The Forbidden Forest? It's a spooky forest filled with all kinds of horrible creatures and deadly dangers. Somehow, moths aren't the first things that come to mind.

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Last, and definitely worst, how are these wispy smoke tendrils representative of the evil duo that is Voldemort and Quirrell?! I mean.....sheesh. I LOVED so many of Jim Kay's illustrations, but this one should never have made the final cut. 

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Now that my small rant is over, this book was amazing! I absolutely feel it was worth the money I spent on it. The pages are really nice and thick (which isn't something I normally pay attention to, but when you spend $40 on a book you find yourself paying attention to the small details) and the vast majority of the illustrations were gorgeous and felt like a natural extension of the story. 

In this girl's opinion, Jim Kay made the Wizarding World that much more magical, and I plan to buy every single one of the books in illustrated editions.

Happy Reading,
Mallory

Top 15 Books of 2015

2015 was a big year for me. I graduated from college, moved to Houston, TX, started this blog, and started working on the first draft of my novel! However, I also managed to read a ton of books. So, with it being the end of the year, I decided to name my fifteen favorite books from 2015!

None of the books on this list are in any particular order, because asking me to name my favorite book is like asking me to name my favorite body part—it’s a weird question to ask and impossible to answer. Also, many of these books were published prior to 2015. This year I set a goal to try and read only from the large pool of books I already owned, but had previously never read. I failed miserably, because there were so many amazing books that came out this year, but I did succeed in getting some books checked off that list. So, these are just my favorite books I read this year and not my favorite books that were published this year.

1) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

I don’t even know where to start with this book. It has ancient curses, an artfully embellished and probably biased history of the Dominican Republic, romance, murder, and countless comic book, sci-fi, and nerdy references. In short, it has a little bit of everything. The true testament to how much I enjoyed it is that I wrote a fifteen page paper about this book for a class and I STILL really love it. Though, I expected nothing less from Junot Diaz.

2) The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

Now, this book actually was published in 2015, so this was one of the books I defiantly purchased despite my promise to read only the books I already owned. The cover was too pretty to pass up, so I snagged it and definitely don’t regret it. The language was so rich that the entire book felt like poetry. The story follows two ballerinas and a girl locked up in a juvenile detention center. The three girls become inextricably linked as they try to solve the mystery of what happened the night several girls were murdered and the cell doors at Aurora Hills Juvenile Detention Center burst open. A supernatural murder mystery thriller that kept me glued to my seat. I’d highly recommend picking up a copy. Read my review here.

3) Haints Stay by Colin Winnette

Haints Stay is another book published in 2015 that I just had to buy. The cover was beautiful and the front cover described it as a modern spin on the classic western, so I had to see what it was all about. It definitely didn’t disappoint. Beautiful language, two contract killers on the run, and a little orphan named Bird trying to make a life for himself. Read my full review here.

4) Columbine by Dave Cullen

I tried to read more non-fiction books this year, and that proved to be a great decision when I stumbled upon Columbine by Dave Cullen. The book deals with very heavy subject matter, but Cullen handles it with grace. The book focuses on the circumstances that could lead to a tragedy such as Columbine and not as much on the actual shooting, which keeps the book from feeling like it’s cashing in on the tragedy. Overall, I devoured the book in a weekend and you can read my full review here.

5) The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green by Joshua Braff

A charming coming of age story about a Jewish boy in 1970s New Jersey, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green has something in it for everyone. Joshua Braff writes this slightly peculiar story with a sharp tongue and an open heart. Just when you think the story will simply be a funny bit of fiction, Jacob Green’s family starts to split at the seams and he has to figure out where he belongs. This is one of my favorite books, not just of 2015, but of all time.

6) The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

Mara Dyer’s life comes to a crashing halt when her friends are suddenly killed in an accident she miraculously survives. The kicker? She can’t remember the accident at all. Throughout this first installment of the Mara Dyer trilogy, Mara is forced to grapple with the unbelievable reality she is discovering and the unlikely explanation her parent’s are forcing on her. This trilogy is a mix of supernatural, mystery, romance, and action, and it is all of these things almost flawlessly. One of my favorite series of the year by far.

7) The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones

When Lindsay survives a murderous rampage that leaves all of her friends (and homecoming court) dead, she chooses a host of virgins, misfits, and former final girls to replace them. However, she doesn’t just want a new group of friends, she wants to become the ultimate final girl.

If you’re like me and enjoy a good slasher movie, then this book is definitely for you. In full disclosure, this isn’t very high on my list of favorite books ever, but the countless horror movie references and screenplay-like format made it an enjoyable book from this past year. Read my full review here

8) We Were Liars by E Lockhart

Full disclosure, reviews about this book are often mixed. Either you LOVE it or you HATE it. From my experience, there isn’t an in between. Luckily, I’m one of the people who absolutely loved this book. The writing style was poetic and lush, the characters—although all from the same ridiculously rich family—were three-dimensional and damaged, and the storyline kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end. Without giving anything away, this story features a private island, a group of four friends—the Liars, an accident, a secret, and the truth. It’s beautiful and absolutely one of my favorite books.

9) The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Okay, I bought this book because I thought it had a cool title. Then, the book arrived at my house and I realized it was about vampires. At that point, the book sat on my shelf for almost a year. I was not ready to embark on yet another Twilight-esque journey, thankfully, this book was nothing like Twilight at all. Once I finally put my prejudices aside and read it, I couldn’t read it fast enough. The story was unique and fast-paced, the characters were endearing, and the coming-of-age story mixed with a vampire horror story really set this book apart from the rest. Highly recommended for all lovers of supernatural YA.

10) Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi

Helter Skelter is the top-selling True Crime novel of all time, and my second attempt at reading more non-fiction. I’ve always had a morbid curiousity when it comes to serial killers, and the story of Charles Manson and his followers is one of the most publicized and bizarre cases the United States has ever seen. The 700-page book covered every aspect of the crime, the victims, the killers, and the case. I will say, this book is not for the faint-hearted. I considered myself rather tough when it comes to scary stories and gore, but I was left with more than my fair share of nightmares while reading this behemoth. Overall, I enjoyed learning more about the Manson Family's crime and would recommend this to anyone who enjoys murder mysteries or crime television. Read my full review here.

11) Emma by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen has been one of my favorite books since my junior year of high school, yet I somehow managed to not read Emma until my senior year of college! Why it took me so long I’ll never know, however, I’m overjoyed to add this wonderful book to my favorite books of 2015 list! Jane Austen’s classic wit shines in this tale of misunderstandings and wrongfully made assumptions. The characters may be obnoxiously polite, but Austen proves that you can’t trust anyone. (Plus, the classic 90’s flick, Clueless, is a modern-day adaptation of Emma! So, if you love Cher and Josh as much as I do, then you’ll love Emma.)

12) We the Animals by Justin Torres

While reading We the Animals this last year, I felt like I was being taught something fundamental about writing. Justin Torres used language to display the unbreakable bond of even the most damaged family and the alienation one can feel when surrounded by a world full of people. This story is euphoric and heartbreaking and deeply personal. I loved everything about it and I can’t recommend it enough. (Plus, for being so powerful, it’s a relatively quick read!)

13) Slasher Girls and Monster Boys by April Genevieve Tucholke

Full disclosre, I have not finished reading this book of short stories. However, the stories I have read have been phenomenal! Each scary story is inspired by other well-known stories, whether fairytales, classic horror stories, or old movies. For instance, one of the stories was a horrific reimagining of Alice in Wonderland and another was an unbelievably creative mash-up of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Rear Window. My favorite thing about this book (and probably the reason I haven’t finished it yet) is that you don’t have to read the entire book! You can pick it up, spend thirty minutes in a bone-chilling story, and then go on with your day. It’s perfect for people who feel like they don’t have enough time for reading.

14) To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is one of those authors I always meant to read, but never got around to. Luckily, I got around to it this year and I couldn’t be more thrilled. To the Lighthouse features her classic stream-of-consciousness style and uses it to describe in depth the varied and personal struggles experienced by members of the Ramsay family. Woolf allows an insight into the family’s lives during three highly tumultuous times, showing the reader the human capacity for change.

15) The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

I really struggled choosing my fifteenth book for this list, but I eventually narrowed it down to Cinder, Scarlet, or Cress by Marissa Meyer and realized that I would just have to choose the entire series! Meyer’s futuristic re-telling of classic fairytales like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel are fun and engaging. (I’m working on reading Winter, her latest book that reimagines the story of Snow White, right now, and will hopefully be able to finish it and post a review in the next month.) With Once Upon a Time being so popular on television, this book definitely has mass appeal, so I won’t hesitate to recommend it to everyone. Plus, who doesn’t love seeing classic storybook characters fight mutant wolves and fly around in spaceships?!

Okay, there you have it, my top fifteen books of 2015! I really struggled to narrow down my choices, and I know I left MANY worthy books off of this list, but these are the books I enjoyed the most this past year. Let me know in the comments if you’ve read any of these books and what you thought of them! If not, let me know if I’ve encouraged you to give any of these books a try!

Happy Reading,

Mallory

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi

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Charles Manson is one of the most recognizable names in criminal history. Just in the past few weeks I’ve heard several references in pop culture to Charles Manson or his ideology or his followers. All of the references were used for a laugh, and I think that is why Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter is so important.

In all of the craziness that is Charles Manson, it’s easy to forget that he actually organized the murders of upwards of nine people, AT LEAST. (He has claimed, at times, to be responsible for thirty-five deaths, and the number of suspicious deaths connected to him and his followers leads a lot of people to believe that number.) It’s easy to forget that the short man (he is only 5’2”) with the swastika carved in his forehead, spending his entire life in prison, once controlled twenty to thirty young adults. He asked them to commit murder and they didn’t even bat an eye. As much as the world tries to deny it, Charles Manson is a criminal genius. Honestly, I think we’re all a little scared of him. So, like most things we’re scared of, we make a joke out of it. We turn him into a crazy boogeyman with an almost mythical background. Well, Vincent Bugliosi doesn’t let Charles Manson be a joke.

Helter Skelter hits the reader with all the facts and very little fluff. Through seven detailed sections—the murders, the killers, the investigation, the search for the motive, the pre-trial preparation, the prosecution, and the defense—and an epilogue, he tells the Manson story exactly how it happened, with every gruesome detail in tact.

Now, before I go on, I feel I need to say something. Helter Skelter is THE #1 True Crime bestseller of all time. That being the case, I don’t see how my review can be anything other than a rave. Who am I to argue with over forty years of success? So, rather than a traditional review, I’m going to focus more on my experience reading the novel.

Something you should know about me: I grew up on a steady diet of true crime television—Forensic Files, Power Privilege and Justice, Cold Case Files, The First 48, Unsolved Mysteries, America’s Most Wanted, and many more. Not to mention, I have a healthy interest in horror movies and slasher flicks. I’m talking Scream (1,2,3, &4), Prom Night, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, My Bloody Valentine, Psycho, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Candyman….you get the idea. I ingest a decent amount of violence in my day to day life and I’m fine with it. Why? Because I know it’s fake. There is a formula to slasher flicks that is very easy to follow and makes it very easy to detect who the next victim will be. There are few surprises, so I’m left with few nightmares.

Reading Helter Skelter, however, left me with more than my fair share of nightmares. I had one every single night while reading this book. The story just entered my brain and sat there, not allowing me even the respite of sleep. Now, I don’t think that is any reason to not read the book. In fact, I think it’s a huge compliment to Bugliosi’s story telling. A story I’ve heard countless times on documentaries and read a ton about for the research paper I wrote in middle school (I mentioned I’m really weird, right?) managed to surprise me. In fact, it downright scared me. Like I said before, there is a good reason Helter Skelter is a #1 bestseller.

The only real bummer about Helter Skelter was how long it took me to read it. I fancy myself a pretty fast reader, but it took me a week and a half to make it through this book. (I should mention I spent at least 2-3 hours reading everyday, some days I spent longer.) The font is small, the pages are thin, and there are a lot of them (nearly 700). However, anyone who is anyone will tell you that length should never be a deterrent in choosing a book. So, please promise me you won’t shy away from this read just because I said it took me awhile to finish. Trust me, its well worth your time.

All in all, I learned a lot of information (some I wanted to know and some I wish I could forget) and I left seeing Charles Manson not as a punch line, but for the monster he is.

Happy Reading,

Mallory

My November TBR

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Well, it’s that time of the month again.

Some of you may have read my To Be Read list for October, and I apologize for those of you who did, because I didn’t read a single book from that list. To be fair, I did admit that my patience when it comes to finishing TBR lists is non-existent. I just have SO. MANY. BOOKS. Many of which, I haven’t read before. And my reading habits are based solely on whims. Sometimes I’ll be sitting on the couch in the middle of a crime novel, when all of a sudden I’m struck by the urge to read a classic. So, I’ll put down the book in my hand in favor of Bronte or Austen or Fitzgerald.

I think reading should be fun, so I try to keep things as fast and loose as I can. I want to always enjoy what I’m reading, and reading one book when you’d really rather be reading another is not a way to fully enjoy either book. So, with that said, here is my TBR for November.* I’m in the midst of National Novel Writing Month, so I’m going to try my best to make time for reading, but getting the first draft of my novel done is my main priority for the time being.

*List subject to uncontrollable mood swings, urges, and whims of the reader.

1) Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

This has been a long time coming. I’ve loved any sort of adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland since I was a little girl. If I’m being honest, Wonderland is probably my favorite fictional place (sorry, Hogwarts). I read Lewis Carroll’s story for the first time a few years ago, but I never made it to Through the Looking Glass. So, I figured there is no time like the present, especially since Disney just released the teaser trailer to Tim Burton’s adaptation of it (video below)!

How good does that look?!? I'm so excited. Sacha Baron Cohen as time? Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts? Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter? Yes please. Yes please. Yes puh-lease. 

2) Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay Part 2 comes out November 20th of this month in theaters, and I’m beyond excited. I remember reading all three of The Hunger Games books over Thanksgiving break my freshman year of college. I literally couldn’t put them down. However, it has been almost four years since I’ve last read this book, and I don’t remember it super well. Of course, I remember the main things, but I want to be able to sit in the theater on November 20th and tell my husband every single detail in the movie that doesn’t match the book. Because, as you know, that’s what readers are supposed to do when we go to movie adaptations of books.

3) The Dinner by Herman Koch

I actually received this book as a review copy from Penguin Random House through the Blogging for Books program, and I’m super excited to read it. It has been called the “European Gone Girl”. Now, I haven’t actually read Gone Girl, but I did see the movie. (*GASP* I know. I so should have read the book first. I had no idea I was going to like the story as much as I did.) It was fast-paced and intense, so I’m down to read any book that is favorably compared to it. The Dinner takes place entirely during a dinner the main character is having with his wife and his brother and sister-in-law. So, I’m very excited to see how a mystery plays out over the course of the meal. I’m already 100 pages in and the beginnings of the mystery are being unfurled, so hopefully I finish soon.

In hopes of actually completing this list, I’m going to stop my TBR there. With NaNoWriMo and Thanksgiving going on, I just don’t see myself having time to finish four books.

What are you reading this month? Let me know in the comments!

Happy Reading,

Mallory

Andy and Don by Daniel de Visé

The author is Don Knotts's brother-in-law. His wife is Don's third wife's sister.

The author is Don Knotts's brother-in-law. His wife is Don's third wife's sister.

When I got the opportunity to receive an advanced reader’s copy (ARC) of Daniel de Visé’s book Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, I jumped at the chance. Although The Andy Griffith Show aired in the 1960s, I grew up watching the re-runs with my parents. You know why? Because TAGS has staying power. The peace and quiet Mayberry brought to people’s lives didn’t stop when the show went off the air. After its cancellation, TAGS immediately went into syndication and there hasn’t been a day in over five decades when it wasn’t on television. Besides that, I remember falling in love with Don Knotts’s The Incredible Mr. Limpet, and being terrified when he had to stay the night in a haunted house in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Don Knotts and Andy Griffith were a cherished part of my childhood, so learning more about their lives and friendship seemed like a gift.

Andy Griffith and Don Knotts met on Broadway in the 1950s, and became fast friends. When Don saw the pilot episode of The Andy Griffith Show played on The Danny Thomas Show he gave his old pal a called and asked if Sheriff Andy Taylor needed a deputy. For the next five years, Andy and Don would rule Mayberry with their undeniable chemistry and comedic genius, elevating this rural sitcom into a timeless classic. However, the show also created a lifelong friendship for the two men, who would both describe the five years they worked together on the show as the best and most fulfilling of their lives. They would remain best friends until their last days, with Andy visiting Don, or Jess as he preferred to call him, on his death bed. de Visé’s book follows the two men from their similar beginnings in the south—impoverished and beaten down by the people and society around them—all the way to their deaths in 2006 (Don) and 2012 (Andy).

Like most things these two men did, their friendship sustained this book. When portions of the text began to creep into encyclopedia territory, it was the story of their friendship that pulled me through. Hearing anecdotes of their comedic collaborations behind the scenes on TAGS and their weekend hangouts together on the island Andy called home make the reader feel remarkably close to the two men. And de Visé’s insight into the private, and occasionally dark, portions of their lives is riveting, as well. Admittedly, though, I did have to wonder on several occasions how fair the text was to Andy Griffith. The author stated in the afterword that Griffith’s widow politely refused interviews, so the private information can’t exactly be verified by those closest to Andy; whereas, the author is related to Don Knotts, giving him nearly unlimited access to Don’s secrets and verification of rumors.

Overall, the biography was honest and touching. In the last pages, as Andy says goodbye to Don for the last time, and de Visé describes Don’s funeral and the highly visible mourning Andy endured, I shed more than a few tears. I’d recommend this to any fans of The Andy Griffith Show, to anyone who longs for the easy going days of the past, and to anyone who has ever had a friend the way Andy and Don had one in each other.

I was given Andy and Don as an ARC from netgalley.com in exchange for an honest review. Andy and Don  will be available for purchase on November 3rd. 

Happy Reading,

Mallory

The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones

If you know anything about me, then you know I love a good slasher flick. I watched a VHS copy of Scream in a literal cabin in the woods when I was only eleven-years-old, and it sealed the deal. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way a horror movie buff. I am not into supernatural movies where ghosts possess people and I will never watch the exorcist. I like slasher movies, and there’s a huge difference. Knowing the rules of slasher movies is what makes them so fun to watch. The couple bedding down for the first time during a rowdy party? Dead. The guy who says, “I’ll be right back,” when he goes to look for his girlfriend in the woods? Dead (and his girlfriend died a few scenes ago). Knowing all the rules means you get to make fun of the person being brutally murdered on the screen for being such a dummy, and if anyone knows all the rules, it’s Stephen Graham Jones.

“Life in a slasher film is easy. You just have to know when to die.

Aerial View: A suburban town in Texas. Everyone's got an automatic garage door opener. All the kids jump off a perilous cliff into a shallow river as a rite of passage. The sheriff is a local celebrity. You know this town. You're from this town.

Zoom In: Homecoming princess, Lindsay. She's just barely escaped death at the hands of a brutal, sadistic murderer in a Michael Jackson mask. Up on the cliff, she was rescued by a horse and bravely defeated the killer, alone, bra-less. Her story is already a legend. She's this town's heroic final girl, their virgin angel.

Monster Vision: Halloween masks floating down that same river the kids jump into. But just as one slaughter is not enough for Billie Jean, our masked killer, one victory is not enough for Lindsay. Her high school is full of final girls, and she's not the only one who knows the rules of the game.

When Lindsay chooses a host of virgins, misfits, and former final girls to replace the slaughtered members of her original homecoming court, it's not just a fight for survival-it's a fight to become The Last Final Girl.”

The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones pays homage to every slasher movie you can imagine: Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Cabin in the Woods, Scream, Prom Night, and even Heathers, among a slew of others that I’m not well versed enough to know. The references throughout the text are innumerable (one character is named Crystal Blake, as in, Camp Crystal Lake, the setting for Friday the 13th.) The book is even written like a screenplay, in present tense with indented arrows setting up camera shots.

Sadly, however, I wasn’t entirely sold on Jones’ take on the slasher novel.

For one thing, the writing style proved to be more of a distraction than a help. It felt cool and edgy for awhile, but it became a nuisance later in the book and it completely confused the final scene. I had to read it twice to get even a remedial understanding of what was going on. Although, to be fair, most slasher movies erupt into chaos in the final scenes, as well.

Then, all of the characters knew too much. I like it when there is one genre-aware character in a slasher story. Scream owes so much of its popularity to Jamie Kennedy playing the nerdy horror movie buff Randy. (“The police are always off track with this shit! If they’d watch Prom Night, they’d save time. There’s a formula to it. A very simple formula! EVERYBODY’S A SUSPECT!”) However, The Last Final Girl is chock full of people who have apparently done nothing else but watch horror movies since their birth, and the reader starts to feel like they are the only one not in on the joke.

Finally, the action is crammed into the second half of the book, while the first half is a bit of a yawn. Jones definitely went all out on the final fight scenes, but I would have liked to see a bit more of the blood and gore in the first half of the book to raise the stakes a little bit.

Overall, the book was funny—some of the movie references stuck the landing and had me laughing out loud, and the entire book felt like watching a pretty decent slasher movie—but I wouldn’t call it genius. It’s definitely not on par with Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods. If you’re like me and enjoy a good slasher movie, then this book is definitely worth the read. Just keep your expectations low and enjoy the ride.

Happy Reading,

Mallory