Posted in Reading

Because I Was Reading

A few years ago, I convinced myself that I knew my books (all 700-ish of them) so well that I could identify them merely by touch. I sat on the couch with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears while my husband brought me five books at a time. Then, keeping my eyes closed, I ran my hands over the covers, flipped the pages, felt for bookmarks, inhaled their scents, and generally absorbed their bookiness through my pores before making my guess.

I didn’t get a single one right.

This was very disappointing and also somewhat embarrassing, and the “See-you’re-crazy-I-told-you-so” smirk on my husband’s face only made matters worse. However, I still maintain that I know SOME of my books that well. He obviously just didn’t bring me the right ones.

Whether or not I know my books as well as I thought, it doesn’t take away from how much I love them. Reading is still my favorite thing to do, and I did it a lot in 2017, finishing 60 books that spanned fiction, nonfiction, YA, middle grade, adult, children’s, poetry, short stories, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, realistic fiction, historical fiction, comedy, classics, graphic novels, comics, audio books, and novels in verse. Whew! I consider that a job well done.

However, dedicating the hours necessary to finish 60 books in a year does mean there are times when other areas of life are neglected.

Chances are…

If you called me and I didn’t answer, it’s because I was reading.

If I showed up a little late to your gathering, it’s because I was reading.

If I left the tea kettle whistling until the water boiled away, it’s because I was reading.

If I forgot to feed the dog, it’s because I was reading.

If an announcement about a delayed flight made me smile, it’s because I was reading.

If I had tears in my eyes at a coffee shop, it’s because I was reading.

If I didn’t realize a cat had crawled into my lap, it’s because I was reading.

And if I fell asleep on the couch with the light on and a bookmark stuck to my face, it’s because I was reading.

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A few of my favorite 2017 reading spots (& reading companions)

In fact, the reason why this post didn’t come out on December 31st like I planned, is because I was reading. I was determined to finish one more book before the end of the year. (And I did.)

So, the question is… WHAT was I reading?

I read a lot of things last year, and I liked most of them. Here are a few favorites. (For a full list of what I read, check out my Goodreads page.)

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* The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud – An excellent end to an amazing series. Read my full review of this fifth and final book in the Lockwood & Co. series here.

Print* Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick – Sonnenblick has outdone himself with this novel. I didn’t think I’d ever love any of his books more than Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, but Falling Over Sideways got it just right. Just absolutely perfectly right. An excellent read for middle schoolers, parents, teachers, and anyone who loves a good story.

25814154* The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell – I can’t express how much I loved The Madwoman Upstairs. It’s everything I wanted and needed from a summer read. Wit. Charm. Passionate book discussions. Literary scavenger hunts. Scandals. Secrets. A creepy old tower. The Brontes. This novel had it all. I listened to it on audio, read by Katie Koster, and it was fantastic. So fantastic, I bought the paper copy. Now I’m tempted to start over and read it again. So good.

24902132* Leaf and Beak: Sonnets by Scott Wiggerman – This poetry collection sat on my shelf for too long before I finally read it. Now, I don’t know why I waited. The sonnets follow the poet on his daily walks around his Austin neighborhood and are organized by the seasons, but there is nothing trite or expected from these elegant poems. The sonnets are both vivid and subtle, allowing the reader to stroll pleasantly through the verse while also inspiring her/him to pause and reflect at regular intervals. An excellent collection.

920607* The Arrival by Shaun Tan – Is it possible to “read” a book with no words? If you don’t think so, then you haven’t read The Arrival. This wordless story of a man leaving his homeland for a new country communicates the immigrant experience in a beautiful, intimate way.

17465707* Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro – I bought this book based on its adorable cover, and the inside didn’t disappoint. Still Writing is written in short essays, anecdotes, and tips. It reads easily and is a positive and encouraging take on the writing craft, while also being realistic. I took a lot of notes while reading it and put it down to write multiple times. (That’s how you know a writing book is good—it makes you WRITE.)

23203257* Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart – Lily, a transgender girl, and Dunkin, a boy with bipolar disorder, are both struggling through 8th grade. Their friendship will tug at your heart. At least, it tugged at mine.

19364719* Slasher Girls & Monster Boys edited by April Genevieve Tucholke – This anthology of teen horror stories by some of today’s best YA authors is way more gruesome and creepy and dark than I expected. I liked almost all of the stories, and several stayed with me long after I finished them, especially “In the Forest Dark and Deep” by Carrie Ryan. Thanks to that story, I’ll never be able to watch Alice in Wonderland without cringing again.

22840421* My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows – This book CRACKED. ME. UP. It’s a historical fantasy comedy romance. (Yeah, that’s a thing.) It’s like… if Game of Thrones met The Princess Bride except half the characters could turn into animals. You know what, just read it.

12948* (Not a favorite, but still one I want to mention) – The last book I read in 2017, the one I finished just a few hours before midnight, was The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and I can’t decide what I think of it. I’m keeping my thoughts to myself for now because my book club will be discussing this classic horror novel in a couple of weeks, and I don’t want to give away all my conversation topics here, but I would love to know what others thought of it. Have you read it? Did you like it? (I promise not to steal your opinions for my book club. All clever critiques will be duly attributed during our discussion, I promise.)

So… the next question is… What will I read THIS year?

I hesitate to even post these titles because, if history is any indicator, books that I put on my “must-read” list often meet with procrastination, forgetfulness, or disappointment. But this year’s list is a winner, I can feel it. Here are ten books I definitely want to burrow into in 2018:

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  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (I already started this one and am enjoying it so far.)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (This has been on my reading list for years. A friend gave me a beautiful purple copy for Christmas, so now I have no reason not to dive in.)
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (No, I’ve never read it. Don’t shun me. A student gave me a copy—again a gorgeous one—so I’m going to give this classic a try.)
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino (My friend recommended this book. The summary sounds just as strange as the title. Wonderfully strange! I’m so excited to read it.)
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I’ve watched this author’s TED talks and read her interviews. Everything she says is eloquent and gorgeous, so I expect her book will be the same.)
  • Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (This has also been on my reading list for years. It feels like time to read it.)
  • Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford (I got this sequel to one of my favorite middle grade novels for my birthday but haven’t made time for it yet. I can’t wait to see what Milo is up to.)
  • Dreadnought by April Daniels (I’ve heard great things about this YA novel about a transgender superhero.)
  • Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey (Nova Ren Suma recommended this book during my workshop with her at Highlights. I don’t remember why anymore, but when Nova Ren Suma recommends something, you read it.)
  • The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (A student highly recommended this book to me, and it meets my goals of reading more nonfiction and reading outside my comfort zone. Plus, the girl is brilliant, so I trust her.)

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Well, there you have it. Books, books, and more books. I’d love to hear about your own reading achievements. What was your favorite read in 2017? What are your goals for 2018? And tell me what you thought of The Turn of the Screw! (It’s ok. You can be honest.)

Posted in Reading

Carie’s Lists: The Best Books I Read in 2016

Happy New Year!

I’m thrilled to welcome 2017 into our lives. Overall, 2016 was EXHAUSTING, but I did read some good books.

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Gabby & Uno exhausted from 2016

My goal this year was to read at least 50 books and no more than 75. (Read this post to find out why my reading goal had a cap.) I achieved my goal, reading a total of 66 books. (Goodreads claims I only read 53, but that’s because a couple of the books I read aren’t on Goodreads, and because I don’t re-rate the ones I re-read, but I do re-count them in my official book journal.)

Here are some of my favorites:

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The Best Books I Read in 2016

Best New Book in a Series: The Creeping Shadow (Lockwood & Co. #4) by Jonathan Stroud

I can’t say enough good things about the Lockwood & Co. series. I LOVE these books. They made my best books list last year too. I love the setting. I love the plot twists. I love the humor and the horror. I love the characters so much that I miss them terribly the moment the book ends. I also love-hate the cliffhanger endings. The Creeping Shadow left off with a BIG reveal and now I’m pining for book 5.

Best Middle Grade Novel (and Strangest Idea for a Story Ever): The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Steve’s baby brother is sick. Very sick. And wasps, one of the many things Steve is afraid of, have taken up residence in a nest outside his house. But the wasp queen comes to Steve in his dreams and says they can fix the baby. They can make everything better. They’re there to help. But are they really? What is the price of their help? And why has no one ever seen this type of wasp before? And who is the odd man who sells knives from his van?

This is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read (or listened to, on audio book). It kept me intrigued until the very end and genuinely scared me at times. Great horror novel for young readers.

Best YA Novel: Tie between The Walls Around Us and Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

I just saw that Nova Ren Suma has a new book coming out in 2017. It is currently untitled and there are zero details about it on Goodreads, but I marked it as “to read” because if it’s anything like The Walls Around Us or Imaginary Girls, it will be amazing. Read about why I love her work here.

Best YA Novel with LGBTQ Characters: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Funny. Touching. Sexy. Heart-wrenching. Adorable. Real. You don’t have to identify as LGBTQ to relate to Simon’s story. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love in high school will see themselves in this book.

Best Middle Grade Novel with LGBTQ Characters: George by Alex Gino

George is a fourth grade girl in a boy’s body, but no one knows her secret. When her class reads Charlotte’s Web, George falls in love with the beautiful spider and wants to play her in the school’s performance of the book. She knows she’s the best person for the part. There’s only one problem– boys can’t try out for the role of Charlotte, and everyone thinks George is a boy. With the help of a trusted friend, George finds a way to show the world who she really is.

This is a sweet story, and an important one.

Best Graphic Novel: Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson

Ok, the whole truth? This is the only graphic novel I read this year. But this charming origin story of a Muslim girl in New Jersey who becomes a superhero was so good that it made me want to read more.

Funniest Book: Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Last June, Jenny Lawson was the keynote speaker at the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference, and I got to meet her when she signed my copy of this book of hilarious essays. It was so amazing to hear her speak and to get a hug from her. I can’t explain why I waited six months to read her book. Maybe I was worried it could never live up to her first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. Or maybe it’s because I knew how much I would love it and wanted to savor it. Who knows. All I know is that I’m glad I waited because this book was just as funny and relatable as her first one, and it was the best book to read during the wonderful/stressful/joyous/exhausting weeks of the holidays. I laughed out loud (literally– I cackled) so much while reading this book, but I also learned a lot about what it’s like to struggle with mental illness. If you are a fan of irreverent humor and/or want to read multiple stories involving Jenny Lawson’s “lady garden,” go get this book today.

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Me & Jenny at #WLT2016. It’s blurry because we’re both a bit tipsy. (That’s how that works.)

Saddest Book: Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez

This is a good book, but it is a dark book, and you should know that going in. Ashley Hope Perez is a brilliant writer and an incredible teacher. I took a workshop with her at The Writing Barn last January, and I left full of energy and inspiration. Her powerful story of love and loss and racism and abuse set in east Texas in 1937 received a Printz Honor in 2016. If you read it, you’ll understand why.

Best Poetry Collection: Language of Crossing by Liza Wolff-Francis

It’s hard for me to choose favorites among books of poetry. They’re all so unique and personal. My tastes change from day to day, sometimes from moment to moment, depending on my mood. But Liza Wolff-Francis’s chapbook about the US/Mexico border spoke to me on a deep level. She puts into words the struggles of the Mexican immigrants and gives voice to the horrors they face. This is a small, but powerful collection of poems.

Best Re-Read: Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

This year, I finally decided to re-read the Harry Potter series. I listened to all seven books, back to back, and I’m so glad I did. I thoroughly enjoyed reliving this series that meant so much to me, my family, and my students. Here are my thoughts about tagging along on Harry’s adventures a second time.

Story That Stayed With Me the Longest: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

This year, I finally read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and I loved it. Shirley Jackson is a masterful storyteller. It’s hard to talk about this novel without giving anything, so I’m just going to say, go read it. It’s short and surprising and unique and will linger in your thoughts for weeks after reading it.

Most Surprising Book to Make This List: Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds by Dav Pilkey

There was a consistently empty shelf in the elementary school library where I used to work labeled “Captain Underpants.” It was empty because the books were always checked out. The kids loved them, coveted them, sometimes fought over them. I knew nothing about them except that they looked silly and most adults I knew rolled their eyes when they mentioned them. I’d never read one. Then, over Thanksgiving, my family celebrated my niece’s sixth birthday and she squealed with glee when she opened a box full of Captain Underpants books. Later, after turkey and pie and more pie and birthday cake, when I had taken up permanent residence on the couch, I picked up one of the books and read it. And now I get why kids like these books so much. It was funny! More than once I laughed out loud at the clever puns and silly scenarios. It’s fast-moving and action-packed, and there are cartoons and drawings scattered throughout. I was quite pleasantly surprised. It’s not like I’m going to go out and read the whole series, but I definitely understand why the books are hits with kids and won’t be rolling my eyes about them anymore.

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This year, I’m not setting a reading goal. I don’t need to. I love to read, and I love letting books pile up. I love making lists of novels I *must* read and then finding new stories that catch my eye before I can finish the old ones. I look forward to whatever books 2017 has in store for me. Let a new year of reading begin. 🙂

What was the best book YOU read in 2016?

Posted in Reading

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2015

This year I read 78 books. You can see the full list on my Goodreads page. There’s a lot of good stuff in that list—poetry, nonfiction, young adult, middle grade, horror, modern, classic—it was a good year for my book-loving soul. But a few books stood out above the rest. They’ve stuck with me, lingering in my thoughts as I write, live, and read other books. I keep coming back to them again and again, and that’s how I know they’re special.

These are the 10 best books I read in 2015. Consider adding one of them to your reading list.

1. The Shining by Stephen KingShining

I don’t know why it took me so long to read this classic of horror, but it was worth the wait. Stephen King’s ability to merge human horror with the otherworldly is inspiring. The Shining produces a creeping, clinging type of fear that makes you slunk down into the covers while reading and hangs around even after a good night’s sleep. I knew before I even finished it that it was going on my list of favorite books. If you don’t think you need to read the novel because you’ve seen the movie, you’re wrong. The book is very different, but it didn’t make me love the movie any less. They’re both masterpieces.

2. Greenglass House by Kate MilfordGGH

Greenglass House is also about being snowed in at a strange hotel in the middle of winter, but it’s nothing like The Shining. This middle grade novel about an boy named Milo and his family’s inn and a group of mysterious strangers captured my heart. To read my full, gushing review of it, click here.

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3. Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud

Ok, I’m cheating here because I’m counting this whole series as one book. If I didn’t, I’d have to include all three books– The Screaming StaircaseThe Whispering Skull, and The Hollow Boy— in this list. I’m picky about ghost stories. I want the ghosts in books to behave in a way that’s both spooky and believable, sometimes touching and sometimes funny. In my opinion, Jonathan Stroud nails it. The world he has created– a world in which ghosts have become much more prevalent than they used to be, a world in which the agencies hired to contain them are made up of children because adults aren’t ghost-sensitive enough to deal with them– is so detailed and so perfect. And the main characters are so entertaining that I could read a whole chapter just about them drinking tea and I’d still be happy. Hurry up with the fourth book, Jonathan! I’m ready.

4. Okay For Now by Gary D. SchmidtOKay

I listened to this touching middle grade novel on audiobook and loved it so much I had to go out and buy the paperback. The way Schmidt weaves art and friendship and the horrors of the Vietnam War into this story about a boy and his struggling family during the 70’s is flawless. I recommend it for children and adults alike.

5. Gabi: A Girl in Pieces by Isabel QuinteroGabi

Best impulse buy ever! I bought this book at the Texas Book Festival this year and proceeded to almost fall off a curb a few minutes later due to reading while walking. Gabi: A Girl in Pieces is the story, in diary format, of a high school girl named Gabi Hernandez. Her best friend is pregnant, her other best friend is gay, her dad is a drug addict, and her mom is worried that Gabi is trying to “be white.” But all Gabi is really trying to do is survive high school and find herself, which she does partly through poetry. Despite having little in common with Gabi’s actual life, I felt instantly connected to her voice through her journal, which reminded me of my own. This is a great book for teenagers.

Sky6. The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

This is another audiobook I had to go out and buy. Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker’s sister has just died unexpectedly. Lennie is grieving. But she’s also living and falling in love and making giant mistakes and trying to fix them. Intertwining music and poetry and deeply original characters, The Sky is Everywhere is a beautiful novel of loss and love.

7. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse AndersonWintergirls

This gut-wrenching story of a high school girl battling anorexia was more terrifying to me than many of the horror novels I read. Although Anderson reveals the ugly truths about eating disorders in this book, she also writes about Lia’s struggle in a poetic, almost magical way. This is an important novel, one that should be in every high school library.

TTW8. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

I don’t read many graphic novels, but I’m glad I picked up Through the Woods. This book of short, weird tales with intensely creepy illustrations was awesome. My favorite part was the last two pages. I don’t want to give anything away, but Carroll’s method of turning a beloved children’s classic into a nightmare is pure genius.

9. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonBGD

Woodson’s memoir in verse deserves all the awards and accolades it has received. She brings her childhood to life in snapshots of poetry, painting a vivid picture of her family’s love and loyalty and her own struggles to fit into both the worlds she lived in– New York and South Carolina– during the Civil Rights movement. Beautiful and inspirational.

NightFilm10. Night Film by Marisha Pessl

This was the first book I read in 2015, and a year later it’s still on my mind. The first few pages grabbed me like few books have, there were some truly haunting scenes in the middle, and the end was equally satisfying and mysterious. All in all a great book. Note: This is not one to listen to. There are images and diagrams and articles in the novel that need to be viewed. I also recommend downloading the app for added content when you finish.

Happy New Year! And Happy Reading in 2016!

*** Don’t forget! TODAY (December 31, 2015) is the LAST DAY to enter my book giveaway! Comment on my blog or Facebook page by midnight (central time) and you could win a free book! ***