Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Best of 2009

I started this year with the goal to get back to reading and I was very successful. Not only did I read more books, but I read better books. I discovered new genres and authors. Most of this growth I can credit to the wonderful book blogs I discovered this year. I read 41 books in 2009 and I have chosen eight I consider to be the very best of that lot. They are linked to my reviews (in no particular order) below. Enjoy.

  1. The Last Queen by C. W. Gortner

  2. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

  3. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

  4. Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

  5. The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood by Dr. Sears

  6. The Shadows of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

  7. Time Travelers Wife by Audrey Neffeneger

  8. The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall
I also started this blog in an effort to keep up with the books I read and to review them. As a first time blogger and book reviewer, I think I was successful with these goals as well. I reviewed 24 of the 41 books I read. I posted on a semi-regular basis as my school schedule allowed and I successfully completed the 2 reading challenges I joined. All in all, not a bad reading year. I look forward to what 2010 has in store.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Mailbox Monday 12/28

This is my first time participating in Mailbox Monday, mainly because around August my husband put me on a book-buying ban. I made just one too many high dollar trips to the local Barnes and Noble and he had a fit. Well, he did not put a ban on Santa buying books for Christmas, so I am linking up the wonderful assortment of books I found under the tree on Christmas morning.

People of the Book by Geraldine Broooks
I have been talking about reading this book for some time, at least a couple of years. This year I finally put it on my Christmas wish list. The book centers around a rare book expert and an early Jewish volume with illustrations. The book's mysteries trace the history of not only the book, but the people who owned it.

Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran
This is my first Michelle Moran novel. I am looking forward to reading story of Selene, daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony as it takes place in imperial Rome.

Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji
I have seen this book reviewed in several places on the Internet. I had it on my TBR list awhile ago, but read so many Middle Eastern novels that I was a bit burned out and put this one on the back burner. The novel takes place in Iran before the revolution and is a story of forbidden love as well as revolutionary dangers.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Secret Diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson and I can't wait to dive into her novel on Josephine. It takes place during the last phases of the French Revolution through the Napoleonic Wars, chronicalling the role of Josephine not only in politics, but also her personal life.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Fall Into Reading Wrap Up Post

We were out of town Christmas Week and I did not get a chance to post my Fall Into Reading Wrap Up post. The challenge is hosted by Katrina at Callapidder Days and it is one of my favorite challenges, mostly because it is low pressure, it encourages me to read from my ever growing TBR, but also allows me to change my list as new and fascinating books come my way or my reading mood changes. You can find my original list and goals here.

I was not as involved in the Fall Challenge as I was the Spring one. School has just been too crazy and hectic. I have however, been reading more as the semester progresses. I am feeling more at ease with my AP European History class and have been able to read for pleasure instead of studying all the time. Although, I have to say by reading everything I have assigned my students in real time with them, I have gained a new appreciation for how hard some of my advanced students work.

I did not stick to my list very well, but some great books have come my way to distract me and there were a couple I just had to re-read. From my original list I read (reviews are linked):
World Lit Only by Fire
Sex With Kings
The Dowry Bride
The Lost Queen
Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Books I read off my list (linked to reviews):
Time Traveler's Wife
Breaking Dawn
The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico
The Complete Persepolis (my very first graphic novel, but not my last)

I am still reading The Girl from Junchow and will probably finish it in the next couple of days. I am also reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor with the intent of completing it before the end of the year.

I don't think I can pick a favorite book from this challenge. I really enjoyed The Lost Queen by C.W. Gortner and Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I also read my first graphic novel for this challenge, at the suggestion of my students who read it for their advanced English class. I liked the book and the genre, so I will probably read more in the future.

All in all, I did well for this challenge considering the pressures from school this fall. I had hoped to read 15 books and I ended up reading 10, with 2 more from my original list in progress. I will certainly be on the lookout for the Spring Challenge sign ups!

The Last Queen

By C. W. Gortner

I found this book through 2 of my favorite book blogs, Hist. Fic. Chick and The Burton Review. After reading both their reviews here and here I put it on my TBR list.

this book takes place during one of my favorite historical periods -- the very late Middle Ages - Early Renaissance. Whiel I ma very familiar with the history of England and France during this time, the history of Spain is another story. I found this a fascinating read. This is the first time I have read anything about Juana, the 3rd daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs that united Spain and pushed the Moors into North Africa.

Juana, through a series of unfortunate events, becomes heir to the throne of Spain. This proves to be her undoing. Her marriage to Philip , heir to the Hapsburg throne is destroyed by her husband's desier to claim the throne that is rightfully hers. The nobles of Spain have their own ideas on who should rule Spain adn even Juana's own father, Ferdinand of Aragaon, fights her claim to the throne. In an attempt to gain control of Spain, Juana returns to Spain with her husband. While there, she gives birth to a child, conceived and born on Spanish soil, creating another Spanish heir.

Juana endures more stress and heartache than any woman should. When she leaves Flanders, she leaves behind her 4 children, who in essence forget who she is and when she is finally reunited with them, they are strangers. Her husband dies while in Spain, under mysterious circumstances. She is betrayed by her husband, father and son, all over inheriting the throne of Spain.

History has painted Juana as crazy, calling her Juana, la Loca, or Juana, the Mad. C. W. Gortner weaves the most infamous historical examples of her irratic behavior with his ideas of why she would have acted this way -- preservation of Spanish sovereignity, her family and herself.

I liked the twists and turns the author incorporated into the story. His writing style -- vivid descriptions, interesting dialogue and accurate history pulled me thorugh the story. This is one of those books I did not want to end. I look forward to his new novel about Catherine de Medici which will be published in spring 2010.

Rating A+

Saturday, December 12, 2009

2010 Reading Challenges

This was my first year to participate in any reading challenges. In fact, I only created this blog so I could participate in them. As the 2010 Reading Challenges start popping up across the Internet, I want to join so many. However, I am trying to be realistic, picking only a few and focusing on ones that involve books I am interested in as well as ones that stretch my reading selections. I also am aware that I can only read so many books, so without further ado, these are the 3 - year long challenges I am joining this year.

The Take Another Chance Challenge is hosted by Find Your Next Book Here. There is a list of 12 challenges to use to pick the books you are going to read. There are 3 participation levels.

A Small Gamble - complete 3/12 challenges
A Moderate Gamble - complete 6/12 challenges
Gambling it All - complete all 12 of the challenges

Now, my husband will tell you am quite the gambler, but for this challenge I am going to try for the Small Gamble level. My plan is to use 3 of the challenges to read books that I never would have picked up on my own, after all I do believe this is what this one is all about.

My second challenge is A Royal Review's Historical Fiction Challenge. Now, this one is just screaming for me to join. If I could only read one genre of book, it would be historical fiction. Again, this challenge has multiple levels of participation.

Curious - 3 books
Fascinated - 6 books
Addicted - 12 books
Obsessed - 20 books

I am going to jump into this one at the Obsessed level. I think I can easily read 20 historical fiction books next year. 12 of my 37 books I read this year were in the historical fiction genre and I believe I can read more, especially with a conscious effort. I also plan to challenge myself to read only books already on my shelves or from the library for this challenge.

Some books I am putting on the challenge for this list are - The Girl from Junchow by Kate Furnivall, The White Queen by Phillipa Gregory, Pope Joan by Donna Woolfold Cross, Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant and Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund.

My final year long challenge is the Read the Book, See the Movie Challenge hosted by Ready When You are, C.B The ideas behind this challenge is to read a book, watch the movie based on the book and then review both. You can also see the movie, then read the book. There are several different levels for this challenge as well.

Matinee - 1book/1movie

Double Feature - 2 books/2 movies

Saturday Movie Marathon - 4 books/4 movies

Film Festival - 8 books/8 movies

Festival Jury Member 10 books/10 movies

At first, I was going to sign up for the Double Feature, but then when I started looking at all the books I could read for this challenge, most off my own shelves, I decided to up my participation to the Film Festival Level. The following books are on my list: Time Traveler's Wife, Revolutionary Road, The Duchess, Lovely Bones and Persepolis. Each of these are already on my shelves or I have asked to borrow. That leaves me 3 more to choose during the course of the year.

I am excited about these challenges. I really think I have a shot at completing all 3 in addition to some other shorter challenges that I am sure will attract my attention over the year. In case you are wondering how I found all these great challenges, I DID NOT spend hours surfing book blogs to find them. A Novel Challenge is a great blog of nothing but , you guessed it, Reading Challenges! If you can't find a challenge there that piques your interest, then well, you will just have to start your own!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Time Traveler's Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger

Yet another book I am the last literate person to read. I ignored this book, thinking I wouldn't like it at all, not my genre, not even remotely interested. ( I am one of the few people who just don't get the Outlander series.) Then my assistant principal, whom I often share books with and trust her book sense, brought it to me and gave it a glowing recommendation, so I read it.

Wow, not at all what I expected. I was prepared for some off the wall, fantasy time traveler saga and this book is certainly not that. It is a passionate love story between two people, one of whom jumps back and forth in time at inconveniet times and how they deal with it.

I love that when they meet in Claire's adult time, Henry doensn't know her and they have to fall in love all over again. I love that eventhough Henry knows what the future holds, he never tells Claire. I also love that Henry disappears at very awkward times - it makes the story very interesting, even if it does get a little predictable. I love how Niffenegger portrays time travel as a burden, when so many of us think it would be fabulous to know the future and visit the past.

Then, there are the parts I didn't like -- not because they were bad or poorly written, but because the brought out such emotion in me, mostly sadness, fear and anger. Claire's struggle with infertiliy, the dangers Henry suffers during his travels, that he knows when and how he is going to die, and that Alba can travel and see Henry, but Claire cannot, that Claire sits and waits for him, day after day.

All the parts, the ones I liked and the ones I did not come together to make one excellent story -- one full of passion, humor, heartache and lonliness. I lived and breathed every word of this book and I was terribly sad when it ended. Niffenegger weaves a complex story that engulfs the reader. I kept expecting a wrinkle in the chronology or an inconsistency in the story because of the jumping back and forth. I was convinced I would be confused at some point by an out of place event or an unexplainable occurance, but that never happened. This is a superbly written novel. The movie based on the book was released in August 2009 and the DVD is scheduled for release in February 2010. Her next book, Her Fearful Symmetry is on my wish list.

Rating - A

Monday, December 7, 2009

Book Rating System

I have a book rating system now. As I have reviewed more books, I found this necessary. Now let's be clear, this is just my personal opinion, which may or may not agree with yours. After hours of trying to decide what type of symbol I wanted to use, the teacher in my just could not get past a grading system, so here it is....

A+ - One of the best books I have read. I want a sequel! This one I just might re-read. Makes my list of best books of all time.

A - Highly recommended - well written with a capitvating storyline (fiction) or interesting topic (non-fiction)

B+ - Interesting and enjoyable. Would recommend.

B- Enjoyable read, flaws in research or story flow. Lacks depth, but would recommend to people who like the topic or genre

C+ - Average as a whole, but parts are good. Could have been better written.

C - Very average. Would probably not recommend.

D - Not enjoyable at all, wish I had used my time to read something else.

F - Terrible, so bad I did not finish the book

The Dowry Bride

by Shobhan Bantwal

The Dowry Bride is another book I discovered from a student recommendation. It addresses a serious issue in India --- dowry deaths. Dowry deaths are the "mysterious accidents" that occur when girl's family cannot pay the promised dowry to her husband's family. Megha finds herself in this situation. One night she overhears her mother-in-law and her husband plotting her death and how to make it look like a kitchen accident. In a panic, she runs. The only place she can think to go is her husband's cousin who has treated her very kindly in the past. He takes her in, regardless of what the consequences will be for them both.

This book was a very good overview of India's controversial dowry system, but it lacked depth. The novel eventually becomes more of a love story and the social and moral issues get lost in the story. The novel takes on a "sweetness", rather than focusing on the horrors of the issue. Everything seems to work out just too perfectly in the end, with there being very few ramifications for the characters. Ramifications are mentioned briefly, but neither of the characters ever really "face the music" for what they have done. In the real world, several characters would have suffered consequences, some of them severe. One review on Amazon compared this book to the Kite Runner, hoping it would bring the same awareness to India's dowry system. I am afraid that will not be the case, simply because the issues take a backseat to the love story.

The author does do an excellent job of showing the growth of Megha, from an insecure girl who has been beaten down by her husband's family to a more confident student who suceeds in finding a real life and choosing her own path. She is a good role model for young girls of all backgrounds. All the characters are believable and well developed. The descriptive writing techniques employed by Bantwal are wonderful. I enjoyed the story and the writing. The best part of the book was the insight she gives into India culture, especially that of conservative Hindu families. Arranged marriages, dowry payments, traditional dress and allegiance to one's promises regardless of the situtaion or outcomes. The portrayal of Indian culture was quite good and makes the novel stand out.

This was Shobhan Bantwal's debut novel and she has two other novels I look forward to reading, The Forbidden Daughter and the Sari Shop Widow. Both of the books take a look at some of India's darkest traditions, female infanticide and treatment of widows.

Rating B

Sunday, December 6, 2009

FREE BOOKS from NCSS Conference

I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to attend the National Council for the Social Studies Conference when it was held in Atlanta a few weeks ago. With budget cuts and almost no staff development funds, this was a huge deal.

While the conference sessions left a bit to be desired for my subjects - very little Geography and almost no European History, there were several benefits from attending...

1. I saw several AP Human Geography reader friends from all across the US.

2. I got to participate in a focus group with 2 authors who are writing a new Human Geography textbook -- this was a GREAT experience! Only 12 were invited and it was a great chance to talk about what we want in a textbook and where our subject is heading.

and the best part....

3. FREE BOOKS! I picked up 13 free books, several of them not available to the public yet. Now that is a book lovers dream!