28 December 2015

Outlander - Book Review

Title: Outlander (Outlander #1)
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4 Stars
Dates Read: 09 October to 15 October

I started reading this book the day after I left Scotland. For someone that had only done library research and had not been to Scotland yet, Diana Gabaldon was pretty accurate in her world building. Of course the landscapes and spirit of Scotland were fresh in my mind as I was reading - Invergordon (just outside of Inverness) and Edinburgh were the two Scottish ports on my British Isles cruise.

Outlander is the first book in the Outlander series. Claire Beauchamp Randall, a WWII nurse and plant-lover, travels with her historian husband Frank Randall to the Scottish highlands so he can do research on one of his family members. While Claire is exploring some of the local flora at a henge, she ends up in 1743, where she is face-to-face with Jack Randall, the very person Frank was researching. Claire escapes Jack, who shares her husband's face but not his temperament, and is captured by a clan of Scots that is also fleeing from Jack. After mending the wounded in her captor's party, she is taken back to Castle Leoch, where she becomes that castle's healer. It is also where she develops a relationship with one of the men that captured her, Jamie Fraser.

Although there is a lot of romance in the story (and let's be honest, a lot of sex), the story is so much more than that. I was instantly hooked (of course as I was reading I was imagining myself back in Scotland, traveling the highlands) and wanted to read more. Honestly I did not like Claire very much. She whined too much and was kind of a brat. I am also skeptical of her relationship to both Frank and Jamie. But I did not come for the romance, I came for the adventure, and the story does have that.

Although the book was long (almost 700 pages), the story was so well written and compelling that it was easy to continue reading. After the way the book ended, I cannot wait to read more of the story.

And hopefully another trip to Scotland is in my future as well.

16 December 2015

The Beginning of Everything - Book Review

Title: The Beginning of Everything
Author: Robyn Schneider
Rating: 2.5 Stars
Dates Read: 17 November to 20 November

As I was reading The Beginning of Everything, I felt like I was reading Looking for Alaska, and as the book progressed, a dash of Paper Towns. I hate comparing this to John Green, but the story does follow a similar arc, albeit more generic and completely predictable. I did not relate to any of the characters and did not really care about them at all (except maybe Toby, but barely). I guessed what Cassidy's "tragedy" was long before the big reveal, and with how many times coyotes were mentioned in the book, I was just waiting for that particular scene to happen. (On a side note, that scene was tragic because I am an animal lover and because a few days ago a coyote that was missing one paw was walking down my street in broad daylight and I was thankful my 12-lb terrier Puffy was safely in the house). The only reason why I finished the book is because I just kept hoping that it would get better, that I would be wrong and the ending would completely blow my mind. I wanted it to be better. Oh well, it was a quick read and now I can move on to other books.

What I do find interesting is that the book has an alternate title: Severed Heads, Broken Hearts. I think I prefer that title, because The Beginning of Everything set my expectations very high. And so much of the story goes back to the severed head, I was more interested in that and in Toby's story than Ezra's story. But neither title really does the story justice, because even though the severed head is mentioned so many times, it was not enough to carry the plot, to mark the "beginning" of how Ezra's story developed.

20 November 2015

The Martian - a Book Review AND a Movie Review

Today I am doing something different - a book review AND a movie review! I read the Martian in August, and I was immediately caught up in the story. I had heard of the book and purchased it months ago, but did not start reading it until after I visited the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City and saw the Space Shuttle Enterprise, which put me into a space mood. The movie released when I was on vacation, so I did not see it until mid-October. In September, I visited the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which is the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum's Annex at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia and is home to the Space Shuttle Discovery. Between the two museums, and the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, I was able to see rockets and spacesuits and more, which made me appreciate the research and care that went into the book and the movie. On a side note, I hope to make it to Kennedy Space Center before the end of the year to see Space Shuttle Atlantis, seeing three out of the four surviving shuttles in one year.

Book Review
Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Science Fiction
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Dates Read: 03 August to 10 August

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I am not a scientist, but the science was definitely believable. I loved all of the "Macguyvering" that Mark Watney had to do to stay alive. I do not know if I will ever see humans on Mars in my lifetime, but the book made me feel like it was possible. I loved Watney's sense of humour and I was rooting for him to make it home. I liked how the book started out as his personal log but became more complex as the novel went on, waving other voices into his narrative. It was easy to read and surprisingly easy to follow the science as well.

Movie Review
Rating: 4 Stars
Date: 17 October
After falling in love with the book, I tried to keep my expectations low for the movie, as I always seem to be disappointed at book-to-movie adaptations. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie. First, the book was so well researched that it was not hard to picture the space suit and the HAB and all of the other equipment and technology that Mark Watney possessed, so seeing it on the screen was almost exactly what I imagined. The special effects were not completely over the top, they were used very well to tell Watney's story. I liked being able to see a little more perspective from all of the other characters; however, I did feel like Watney's voice and his solitary experience did get overshadowed a bit. The movie followed the book fairly well, showcasing Watney's humour and his will to survive (and his love of ketchup, which I do not recall from the book). I think NASA's part was overstated and I would have liked to see more of Watney's problem solving - he did manager to survive a very long time without NASA's help. The only part of the movie I did not like was the very end. After I read the book, my mind went into overdrive imagining what happened after. I have never written fan faction before, but part of me wanted to write a hundred different stories for what happened next. I did not dislike the ending; it just was not one of my stories. In general, I am not a fan of epilogues in books (looking at you Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), but at least the movie ending did not leave me questioning how an entire book (or series) could be amazing and then have such a lousy epilogue (one that makes you scream and throw the book across the room).

Final Thoughts
As a firm believer that you should always read the book first, I recommend that you read the book, even if just to get a better grasp of Watney's mental state and of his genius at surviving as long as he did on Mars. Then go see the movie to be impressed by the possibilities of space travel. And go eat a hearty plate of potatoes. With ketchup if you are so inclined.

10 March 2015

Book Review: Bones & All

Title: Bones & All
Author: Camille DeAngelis
Genre: YA
Rating: 4 Stars

I recieved an Advanced Reader's Copy of the book from St. Martin's Press as part of the Bones & All Street Team.

Bones & All surprised me in so many ways. First of all, it is a book about cannibals written by a vegan! The book is not gory, although there are some descriptive passages. I was not as disgusted as I thought I would be. Of course the idea of eating people is horrifying, but the idea of it being a compulsion was interesting.

I was hooked on the story from the first few pages. Maren is a cannibal. She ate her first person, her babysitter, when she was only a baby. She does not remember it, but she imagines that she does. She does not want to eat people, it just sort of happens. The day after her sixteenth birthday, Maren finds herself alone with some cash and her birth certificate. She decides to go searching for her father, whom she never knew. Along the way she meets others like herself. And, in true coming-of-age fashion, she finds herself as well.

It was easy for me to like Maren. She was just trying to make sense of her life and find a purpose. I know she may not have found exactly what she was looking for, or at least thought she was looking for, but I am glad that she was able to find a peace within herself. I appreciate her love of books, and like her, I would probably stuff my rucksack with more books than clothes or other practical supplies if I were to hit the road.

27 February 2015

The Book of Mormon

On January 28th, I went to see the Book of Mormon at the Straz Center in Tampa. I went on the recommendation of a friend who saw the show on Broadway in New York last spring. I did not know much about it except that it was written by the guys that created South Park (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and that it has won many awards.

Every time I hear a doorbell, I start to sing the song "Hello." I was hooked on the show from the opening song. The show is very informative and clever and raunchy and hilarious. The songs are catchy, and a month later I still find myself humming them. It is obvious that the writers respect the Mormon faith even as they satirize it.

The show is about two young men, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, missionaries of the Church of Latter Day Saints, that are on their first mission. They get sent, not to Orlando as Elder Price hopes, but to a village in Uganda. Converting the villagers is not as easy task, and the missionaries that arrived before these two Elders have all but given up. The show does allude to some very serious issues, such as AIDS and female genital mutilation, but is never serious about the issues.

I enjoyed Elder Cunningham's "stories" told to the villagers. I laughed so hard at all of the nuanced jokes and references. The show really deserves the acclaim because it is smartly written and the songs are integral to furthering the story. I think the soundtrack will become a part of my rotation, which is a very high honor as I am somewhat of a music snob.

If I have the opportunity to see the show again, I will. Like many shows, I am sure I will only appreciate it more (and understand more of the jokes) with repeated viewings.

10 February 2015

Book Review: Landline

Title: Landline
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: Fiction/Literature
Rating: 4.5 Stars

I need to confess that I have a hardcore crush on Rainbow Rowell. I do not know what it is about her writing, but I love it. I have thought about writing letters to her about how much I love her writing. But then I remember I am too old to be that much of a fangirl.

This is Rowell's first "adult" book.

It has taken me almost three weeks to write this review because, although I knew I liked it after I finished, it was one of those books that I needed to let settle; to linger. I originally rated it four stars, but after letting it soak into my brain, I think it deserves another half of a star. Maybe in another week or two I will think it is a five-star book. Because I am still thinking about it.

Landline is the story of Georgie and a magic "time-traveling" phone. It sounds silly, but it is not, I promise. Georgie lives in Los Angeles and is a comedy writer for a successful sitcom, but what she really wants to do is to write with her best friend, Seth, on a show they created together in college. She has an opportunity to fulfill her dream if she can send a pilot and four episode scripts to an interested producer in a very short time frame ... during Christmas. Georgie has plans to visit her mother-in-law in Nebraska with her husband Neal and their two children, Alice and Noomi. Georgie decides to follow her dream and lets her family go to Nebraska without her. This puts a strain on her marriage, and the book revolves around her reflecting on her marriage and her life. The magic phone is an old yellow phone she finds in her childhood bedroom closet. She needs it because she cannot remember to charge her iPhone and needs to talk to her husband Neal ... who is actually Neal from the past, from before they were married, from before he even proposed to her.

I enjoyed reading Georgie's story. As someone who lives inside her head far too often, I could definitely relate to her internal dialogue. I was surprised by the ending, which is a good thing. I thought about choices I have made in my own life, my own 12-year marriage. The book just gave me a lot to think about.

I appreciated the "time travel" aspect of the story. It was not your typical time travel story, which made it refreshing. Imagine if we all had a magic telephone that could call a specific point in our personal history. Would you make the call that could potentially change your life? Like I said, lots to think about.

I cannot wait to read more from Rainbow Rowell.

28 January 2015

Book Review: The Cautionary Tale of Butch Black

Title: The Cautionary Tale of Butch Black
Author: JB Maynard
Genre: Humor
Rating: 3 Stars

If you have ever worked in retail, then you will understand why this cautionary tale exists. J.B. Maynard really captures the despair of feeling stuck in a retail job that is going nowhere.

Butch Black is a dedicated employee of World-Mart. He has given ten years of his life to the company and does not want to quit. One of my favorite lines from the book is "A quitter gives up on his or her dreams in the face of complacency. A quitter gets comfortable." This mentality does not just apply to people working in retail jobs, but really to anyone who has ever felt stuck in a position and does not want to, or know how to, change.

Another favorite line is about how we become complacent. "Morale is necessary, a placebo to drown out the wasted years. People need to progress, even if it's down a road to nowhere."

This was a very quick read. It is written journal-style and it is easy to follow along with Butch's descent into madness, even if you have never worked a day in retail. There were a few technical issues that need to be worked out, but the story is there.

Full disclosure: JB Maynard is a personal friend to me and I received a Kindle copy of this book as a gift.

16 January 2015

Tolkien, the Lord of the Rings, and a (sort of) Hobbit movie review

January 3rd would have been JRR Tolkien's 123rd birthday!

I have been a fan of Tolkien since I was a teenager. I think I have read the Hobbit about a dozen times and the Lord of the Rings books at least half as many times. I used to try to re-read them every year, but I have not had the chance to do so the past few years. I have attempted The Silmarillion several times, but have not yet managed to finish that one. I also have not read most of his other work, although I do have seven more of his books waiting on my bookshelf.

The Lord of the Rings movies are among my favorite movies of all time. I saw each one in the theatre for the first time at a midnight line party (and yes, I did dress up) and then saw each of them at least five times. I have had countless marathons, of the theatrical and the extended editions. I spent my New Year's Day watching the extended editions of Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. I would have watched Return of the King as well, but a friend came over, so I had to watch it the following day instead. It still counts as a marathon! (I admit that I read that in Gimli's voice). Despite the liberties the Peter Jackson took with the movies, I think they are very well done and they just grab me. I become emotionally invested in the movies, crying in the same places every time, even though I know what is going to happen. I also still discover new things with each viewing. To me, the movies are timeless. The music is as well. I even walked down the aisle to "Concerning Hobbits" and our first dance was to Enya's "Only Time." I still get chills when I hear "The White Tree." The LOTR is MY fandom, and I have the totes full of action figures and collectables to prove it. My house bears decor of plates mounted on swords, of mounted weapons, and of statues. I am not ashamed to admit I have the theatrical DVDs, the extended edition DVDs, the original movie scores, and the extended edition movie scores.

When I heard that, after years of legal issues and other problems, that the Hobbit movies were finally going to be made and that Peter Jackson was going to direct them, I was absolutely ecstatic. I anxiously awaited all news and information about the movies. When I heard that PJ was going to split the book into two movies, I was a bit concerned, but I still trusted his judgement so I did not think too much about it. Then it turned into three movies, and that had me scratching my head a bit. The book is barely 300 pages - that is 100 pages a movie! But I know how detailed PJ can be, so I decided not to judge until I had the chance to see the movies.

I bought my tickets for the first showing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey the day they went on sale. That was when movie theatres and studios were trying to attract more people to early showings, so the movie actually started at 10 PM, not at midnight. I still arrived at the theatre more than two hours early, expecting there to be a line party or at least some activities happening. Nope, just a few people in the theatre, and I do not even remember anyone being in costume. I brought my well-read copy of the book with me and proceeded to read it while waiting for the movie to start, which was really my biggest mistake. With the book being so fresh in my mind, I could not help but nit-pick the entire movie as I watched. I did not enjoy the movie at all and I left the theatre extremely disappointed. However, my husband, who had at that point attempted to read the book several times without success, was not as hard on the movie as I was, so when the Blu Ray was released, we added it to our collection. I did, however, enjoy the score (which I had also pre-ordered but did not listen to until after I saw the movie).

I still followed news about the second movie, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I like tradition, so when the tickets went on sale, I again bought them. This time the early showing was 8 PM. I did not bother getting to the theatre early, which was fine because I guess line parties are a thing of the past and no one likes to dress in costume for movies anymore. I did not make the mistake of rereading the book so that I would have a less biased opinion of the movie. I ended up leaving the theatre even more pissed off this time. I could understand PJ "adding" characters from Tolkien's cannon into the LOTR trilogy, but creating a character for the sake of creating a character was a bit too much for me. Also, the first movie was pretty close to 100 pages of text. The second movie was closer to 150 pages. What did that leave for the final movie? Since I started the Blu Ray collection, I did buy the movie, but I did not even open it. I did not even bother buying the score, although I think the music was probably the best part of the movie.

Now I only had a passing interest in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Of course I was going to see it. I had to see how it ended. The date of the presale tickets came and went. Granted, I was sick and knew I was likely going to have surgery, but I was in no rush to buy tickets. I did not even technically buy the tickets. I bought two $25 Red Robin gift cards and registered each of them, which gave me two free vouchers for tickets to see the movie. I finally watched both movies again (a mini-marathon!) shortly after Christmas. I was feeling better, so on New Year's Eve I printed my vouchers and went to my second-choice theatre. I tried to keep an open mind, but I could not shut off my brain. Why was Legolas even in this movie? And why the heck did PJ feel the need to invent a dwarf-elf romance? Dwarves, Elves, Men, Orcs - where is the fifth army that is IN THE TITLE OF THE MOVIE (BTW, that would be the Wolves)? There were just so many things wrong with the movie that I could not enjoy it. I did like the score. Again. So I will probably purchase both scores eventually. And I am sure I will buy the Blu Ray when it is released just to complete the collection. But to me, the series just did not live up to my expectations.

There are a few things about the Hobbit Trilogy that I did enjoy (besides the music). I loved Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. After Ian Holmes in the LOTR Trilogy, I did not think I would like anyone else as Bilbo, but I was wrong. In the book, I absolutely hated Thorin from the very beginning. In the movies, Richard Armitage brought out a side of Thorin that I actually wanted to like (and kind of did the first two movies). Honestly, the acting was great all around. The breathtaking landscapes reminded me that New Zealand is still on my bucket list of places to visit. Preferably in the very near future. Like, I was seriously looking at travel information for Australia and New Zealand for 2016.

The Hobbit movies may not become an annual movie marathon tradition like the LOTR movies. Maybe one day I will be crazy enough to have a Hobbit/LOTR weekend. I do not care that the Hobbit also has extended editions (because at least for LOTR, PJ was up front about extended editions being released so people could wait to buy those and not be blindsided). If Peter Jackson decides to direct any more Middle Earth movies (the Silmarillion!?) of course I will be at the theatre, just maybe not at the earliest showing

Just kidding, I will probably buy the presale tickets the day they do on sale.

06 January 2015

Book Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door

Title: Lola and the Boy Next Door
Author: Stephanie Perkins
Genre: Contemporary YA
Rating: 4 Stars

I enjoyed the book, but I did not like it as much as Anna. I just could not relate to Lola the same way I related to Anna. I also wasn't really a fan of Cricket. Or their relationship. I did not care if they ended up together. In fact, I thought Lola was kind of a brat. I did find her talks to the moon very endearing though. I did enjoy seeing glimpses of Anna and Etienne in this book. I thought it was a well written story. I enjoyed the glimpses into San Francisco, which felt familiar because I was just there in October. I even went to the Japanese tea garden where Lola and Max had a date.

05 January 2015

Happy Birthday To Me

Today is my birthday. I am 34 years old. I don't really feel it yet. I am grateful to be celebrating another birthday, especially since I was so sick toward the end of last year.

 When I was a kid, having a birthday so soon after Christmas sucked because 1) I was often lumped into the "here is your Christmas AND your birthday present" group and 2) we were usually still on Christmas break so I did not get to have big birthday parties (also this was hampered by the fact that I lived on a Navy base). As I get older, however, I like to think of my birthday as an extension of New Year's. I am not one to make "New Year's Resolutions" because I think we always have the opportunity to better ourselves. Also, I love the "101 Things in 1001 Days" project and am driven more by that than by the date on the calendar.

But I do like to think of new things to do every year. One year, I thought about how, even though I travel, I do not really do a lot of "touristy" things in my own state of Florida. Not just the theme parks, I do visit those often enough. But the museums, the historical sites, and all of the places I like to visit when I am in a new city. So I made it a point to try to think of my state like a tourist and decide where I wanted to go. I was pleasantly surprised by some of quality museums, particularly in the Tampa Bay area.

 This year, I was thinking that I really do not explore the outdoors enough. I live in an area called the Nature Coast, and while I take advantage of the local waterways by both kayak and speedboat, I really do not do enough camping, hiking, or other exploring. I think I will challenge myself this year to see more state parks (I have a state park in my hometown that I have never even visited) as well as other local parks. I want to throw the kayaks into the truck and find a new place to launch. I would like to take the boat out later in the evening and see a sunset on the water, because really, how have I NOT done that yet? I paid for a SCUBA class, as soon as I am healthy enough I am going to get certified so that I can explore more under the water.

Yesterday I decided to spend my birthday at Homosassa Springs State Park. I have been there before, but I thought it was the perfect place to kick off my resolution. I brought the wheelchair with me, but I did manage to walk the entire park (with a few sitting breaks). I only saw one manatee in the river, but I watched it for about 15-20 minutes just enjoying the unseasonably warm weather, the sunshine, and being outside for so long for the first time in weeks.

02 January 2015

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2014 Book Year in Review and 2015 Goals

Books Read in 2014: 24
Goal: 50 Books
First Book Read in 2014: Allegiant by Veronica Roth
Last Book Read in 2014: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
# of Books with 5-Star Reviews: 5
# of Books with 4-Star Reviews: 11
# of Books with 3-Star Reviews: 8
Total Pages Read: 9495

 5-Star Books:
Cress by Marissa Meyer
Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
Where She Went by Gayle Forman

I was not very good at reading books OR writing reviews in 2014. As much as I love to read, I guess I just do not enjoy writing about them as much as I thought I would.

I do not make a lot of resolutions, but I do try to set reading goals for myself. I have been aiming for 50 books a year for the past few years, but I have yet to reach that goal. Something always ends up getting in the way. So, for 2015, I decided to give myself the much more manageable goal of 30 books. I am on the right track, already having read one book. So yay for me!

As for the blog, I plan on writing more, but it may not always be book reviews. 2014 started off great, and many awesome things happened in 2014. But the two months of the year were just plain awful and for the first time in a very long time I was actually happy to see the new year. The first thing I need to write about will be those two months. "And it's been a long December and there is reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last" (Counting Crows - A Long December).

 I also have some ongoing projects that I need to comment on, such as 101 in 1001 Days. I am nearing the end of my second cycle and am excited about making new goals for the next 1001 days.

 I want to start writing about my travels, both past and upcoming.

I just need to get into the habit of writing again. Period.

01 January 2015

Book Review: Anna and the French Kiss

Title: Anna and the French Kiss
Author: Stephanie Perkins
Genre: Contemporary YA
Rating: 5 Stars

I was hesitant to read this book. partly because of the hype and partly because I do not read much contemporary YA. This book surprised me in so many ways. I was immediately drawn into the story and could easily relate to Anna. I loved "discovering" Paris with her. I have not been to Paris (yet) although I have been to France, so reading brought back memories of my own travels and discoveries. I always wanted to study abroad and never had the chance in high school or college. Knowing that Stephanie Perkins spent time in Paris to write this book made me think that maybe I could still have the opportunity to spend time in another city just to write about it. But back to Anna's story. I loved watching her not only fall in love, but as cheesy as it sounds, I loved it when she found herself. I even loved the moment she realized that she understood French! I took French in high school and college, and both times I was in France it still felt so foreign to me to hear and speak. I thought the book was well-written. It sounded "young" without sounding annoying. I will definitely be reading more books by Stephanie Perkins this year.