Posted in Reading

Book Review: The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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Title: Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave
Author: Jonathan Stroud
My Rating: 5 stars

Rarely do I find a book or a series of books that I love as much as Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud. This weekend, I finished The Empty Grave, the fifth and final book in the series, and the feelings I have about these characters’ stories coming to an end are very bittersweet.

The Lockwood & Co. series is about teenage ghost hunters in London. It is set in a time when ghosts have become a big problem in society. Instead of just one or two popping up now and then, they’re everywhere, and they’re dangerous. Ghost-touch is fatal, and adults are especially vulnerable because they can’t see the spirits. Children and teenagers are the ones with the Talents– the ability to see, hear, and sometimes communicate with the dead– so they are the ones hired to fight the ghosts, locate their Sources, and seal them to protect the living. Most of the agencies have adult supervision, but not Lockwood & Co. This small, independent group works without adults, and they’re not afraid to break the rules (or burn a few houses down) to get the job done.

In The Empty Grave, the Lockwood team, consisting of Lucy Carlyle (the sensitive who can communicate with Type 3 ghosts), Anthony Lockwood (the confident, reckless leader of the group), George Cubbins (the always-messy, expert researcher), and their associates (Holly, Kipps, Flo, and the Skull in the jar) are homing in on something big. They think the head of the top agency in London is not who she claims to be and they may actually be close to solving the ghost problem. But in order to prove they’re right, they have to face more danger than ever before, and may even have to take a trip to The Other Side.

One of my favorite things about this book is the Skull in the jar. The Skull is a character in the story, an unusual one. He is the Source of the ghost of a teenage boy, but he’s trapped in a silver glass jar, so he’s not dangerous, and he can communicate with Lucy. He’s sarcastic and rude to her but sometimes helpful, and I love the interactions between them. In this book, the Skull keeps trying to persuade Lucy to let him out of the jar, though he’s not exactly convincing. Here’s an exchange from page 99 of The Empty Grave:

“‘Say I let you out. What would you do?’
I’d flit about. Stretch my plasm. Might strangle Cubbins. Carry out a spot of casual ghost-touch, now and again. Just simple hobbies.’

I think the author writes the Skull’s voice really well. Although he can be a giant pain to Lucy, I love his wit and humor and enjoy listening to his snide remarks.

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How I spent my Saturday…

I love to read, but I am often a slow reader. However, I flew through The Empty Grave, finishing this 437-page book in less than a week. On Saturday, I read for hours, losing a few fingernails and gaining a LOT of calories in the meantime. (I like to snack while I read.) I kept trying to put the book down to do chores or grade papers, but I couldn’t stay away for long. I couldn’t leave my favorite characters alone in such desperate situations. I had to go back. I had to know what happened next. That’s another reason why I love Jonathan Stroud’s books. His characters feel like friends. I’m never lonely when I’m hanging out with Lucy and Lockwood and George. (And the Skull in the jar.)

That brings me to the only thing I didn’t like about The Empty Grave: it ended. I loved the book, but I hate that this story is over. I will miss my character friends. However, there is a way to keep in touch with them. YOU can read the books, and you can tell me what they’re up to. I’d really like that.

If the Lockwood & Co. series sounds like something you would enjoy, start with book one, The Screaming Staircase, and tell my friends hello for me.

Posted in Reading

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography – Book Review

20170296Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

I finally finished this fun book. It took me a long time because sometimes I buy books and then keep them on my shelf for years before reading them. Sometimes I even wait for hours in line to have the book signed by the celebrity who wrote it, basking in my 1.5 seconds of breathing the same air as him, and STILL leave it on the shelf for years before reading it. (I don’t know why I do these things. Don’t ask.)

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It also took a long time because the choose-your-own-adventure format of this memoir is CREATIVE and HILARIOUS and AWESOME, but it’s also a little confusing. When I started the book, I considered using sticky notes to mark the pages I’d read, but ultimately rejected that OCD idea, opting for a more organic experience instead. So I sat down and read and read and read about NPH’s early years and Doogie years and exploring-his-sexuality years. And then I read, read, read some more about his TV movies and his love of magic and his wonderful husband and their emotional journey into parenting. I got to “the end” multiple times and, eventually, decided I’d mostly finished the book. It was time to start back at the beginning and read only the pages that I’d skipped the first time around. This won’t take long. I’ll just make myself a cup of coffee and sit down and finish this thing.

I made the coffee. I sat down. I read. And read and read and read. It turns out, I was over 100 pages from finishing the book! The fact that I hadn’t yet read anything about his award-show hosting or How I Met Your Mother should have been a clue. Anyway, I continued in this manner until I was really– truly– finished with the book. Which was a couple of hours ago.

The fact that this book sat on a shelf for a couple of years and then confused me into thinking I’d finished it when really I’d only read half may make you think it wasn’t that good. But you’re wrong. Neil Patrick Harris is a great actor and a great singer and a great host, but he’s also a great writer. His anecdotes and footnotes and self-deprecating humor kept me smiling the whole way through, and his clever “alternate endings” are a nice touch and an amusing nod to the choose-your-own-adventure format.

All in all, it was fun hanging out with NPH for a few hundred pages. Despite the fact that my home (and life) bears no resemblance to that of his good friend Elton John, I think we’d get along.

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View all my Goodreads reviews.

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?