A Very Large Expanse of Sea

Image result for a very large expanse of seaFirst Lines: We always seemed to be moving, always for the better, always to make our lives better, whatever.  I couldn’t keep up with the emotional whiplash.  I’d attended so many elementary schools and middle schools I couldn’t keep their names straight anymore but this, this switching high schools all the time thing was really making me want to die.

Let me just say this before we get started: I’m old enough to remember, vaguely, what it was like after 9/11 (a pivotal moment for Shirin, our main character).  And, even though I’ve read books about 9/11 before, this was from a completely different perspective and I was alternatively fascinated and terrified.  I loved that it would be a new perspective, but I was terrified that it either wouldn’t live up to my expectations or that it would rock my world more than I could handle.

It’s 2002, less than a year after 9/11 and sixteen-year-old Shirin, a Muslim-American, is tired of being stereotyped.  She is not a terrorist.  She was born in America so she can’t “go home” to the Middle East.  The rude stares, comments, and physical violence never stops, all because of her race, her religion, and the hijab she chooses to wear every day.  So she’s built up her walls and refuses to let anyone past her snarky defenses except her brother Navid.  To unwind, she spends her time listening to music and break-dancing in her brother’s crew.  But Ocean James changes everyone.  It seems like he’s the first person to actually see her in…well, ages.  The fact that he comes from an entirely different world than hers terrifies Shirin.  And it’s been so long since she’s let down her walls that she isn’t sure she knows how to.

This is the book I have been waiting for.

It started months (if not years) ago when my friend, a woman of Persian descent with two young teenage daughters, was looking for cultural YA books that they could read. She wanted something clean (her girls balk at anything too mature–one refused to watch It’s a Wonderful Life because the pharmacist abuses young George Bailey) but she wanted it to talk about diversity.

I can finally tell her I’ve found it.

Shirin likes to be invisible, but she won’t be the welcome mat that you walk on. She’s just learned that as a young woman of color who wears a hijab that it’s better to avoid notice. Those who don’t notice you can’t target you. But when someone does come at her, she knows to just let it roll off her. People are jerks and Shirin is happy to be a jerk back to them.

Ocean is pretty opposite of her. Happy-go-lucky and popular, Ocean has never dealt with the kinds of abuse Shirin faces daily. So he feels hurt every time Shirin puts up a wall toward him. She doesn’t understand why he’s talking to her–what’s in it for him?–and he doesn’t understand why she thinks he has ulterior motives.

This book is all about what makes us different, whether it’s Shirin or Ocean or even some of the other characters. (I’m particularly fond of Jacobi, one of Navid’s friends.) Sometimes those differences make us special and sometimes they make us a target. But this is about understanding why people belittle others, why they fear those who stand out. And it’s awesome.

I can’t even pretend to know what it was like being someone like Shirin in 2002, when the hate rhetoric was so fresh still. The stuff people say to her…it’s awful. And I know it can’t be all made up. It feels far too real for that. Even when it hurts the most, you know that most of this is based on something that happened to someone. There’s just this honesty about it that feels like Mafi is sharing her own story, in a way. And I’m glad we’re finally in a place where this book is not only accepted by seems to be garnering some pretty spectacular attention.

And for those of you (like me) old enough to remember what technology was like pre-2005ish, this is a total blast from the past and I found it hilarious.  Things like VCRs, AIM, even the fact that every single text message cost money.  I’d forgotten about some of this and I was totally giggling to myself about it all.  I had dial-up flashbacks.

This book was so moving and perfect. And for anyone who does have Persian/Muslim family members or friends, I think it connects in a different way. This was a delight.


The Comeback Season

Image result for the comeback season jennifer e smithFirst Lines: Opening Day at Wrigley Field isn’t always April 8.  It’s not like Christmas or the Fourth of July, with their dependable calendar slots, the reassurance of a fixed number.

This poor book has been languishing on my Goodreads since 2009.  Yes, 2009.  And it’s probably been living on my bookshelves since like 2015 or so.  I don’t even remember how I got it and I remember how I got almost every book on my shelves.  So…I decided it was probably time to read it, you know?  And while I’m not a huge baseball fan or a Chicago Cubs fan, I do understand sports fanatics, seeing as I am one for NFL football.

Ryan Walsh should be in class.  She should be anywhere but at Wrigley Field on opening day, to be honest, but here she is, skipping school to watch the Cubbies.  It doesn’t matter that she should be worried about failing classes or that this is the first time in five years she actually might be happy.  She’s finally returning to the place her father loved so much.  And this, the fifth anniversary of his death, seems like a fitting memorial.  Good luck is often rare at Wrigley, but it’s there Ryan meets Nick, the new kid at her school who loves the Cubs as much as she does.  But Nick carries a heavy secret that makes Ryan wonder if hope is dangerous and that this may not be the comeback season she was waiting for.

Being a Midwesterner myself (though not a Cubs fan), I am very familiar with Cubbies culture, being a fan of a team with a yearly losing record, and life in the Midwest. It was nice to see so many things in it that I could relate to.

For probably 4/5 of the story, I was totally with it. It started a little slow getting to know Ryan and Nick (the third person narrator didn’t always help that), but once we were following them for a decent amount of time, I liked them. Ryan is still mourning the death of her father, who was her hero and died five years ago. Nick is new to school, slightly popular, but finds a kindred soul in Ryan as they partner up to do a math project about the Cubs. But both of them are keeping secrets, things that are easier to pretend aren’t true when they’re with each other.

The story was interesting, a little on the slow side, but it kept me reading. The only part of the whole thing that lost me was the ending. It was so ambiguous that I wasn’t actually sure what happened and that really bothered me. Ambiguity can be a good thing, but there was too much of it here.  Ok, like, you remember in The Fault in Our Stars how Hazel and Gus were worked up about the ending of their favorite book and go to Amsterdam to meet the author to ask about it?  Because he just stopped it so abruptly, like in the middle of a sentence or something weird like that?  This was kind of like that, though there was, at least marginally, more closure than that.

A number of topics are covered in this and I thought they were well done. There was something sweet about this book while being tied down by some very heavy topics.

There’s Someone Inside Your House

Image result for there's someone inside your houseFirst Lines: The egg-shaped timer was on the welcome mat when she came home.  Haley Whitehall glanced over her shoulder, as if expecting someone to be behind her.

I checked this out in like, September, to read before Halloween.  Well, once I decided to do the Harry Potter rereads, this got pushed to the back burner.  And after renewing the book as many times as my library would allow me, it was time to either read it or return it.  So I read it.

Makani Young thought she’d left her dark past behind when she left Hawaii for the cornfields of Nebraska.  She’s found a few new friends and she’s starting to fall for the quiet Ollie Larsson, but her past won’t leave her alone.  Then, one by one, teens at her high school begin dying in gruesome murders, each more disturbing than the last.  As the danger draws closer to her, Makani realizes she needs to come to terms with her past and her growing feelings for Ollie.

I, admittedly, have never been much into slasher movies. I’ve seen maybe 1-2 in my life and I definitely fell asleep during one because there was no plot. But since this was Stephanie Perkins, I had higher expectations.

There was definitely plot here. Makani has a secret she doesn’t want to tell anyone. A killer strikes the town and at first everyone is just devastated at the senseless death. But as the bodies pile up, the fear in the town becomes tangible.  It sort of reminded me a little of In Cold Blood in some ways–“safe” town rocked by tragedy, brutal killings, etc.

I think that was actually my favorite part of this book: the pervasive fear that slowly grew. The town reacted slowly at first, thinking the typical things: it’s a terrible tragedy, a girl gone too soon, etc. And then as one body turned into two and two into three, the town gets a very real dose of fear. It’s not just the main characters that are freaking out–it’s everyone. Everyone does their best never to be alone. People come up with elaborate schedules to stay together. It’s things like this that really drill home the eeriness of the story.

And I did actually like that eerie feeling. We find out the killer much sooner than I had anticipated, but I guess I’m just used to the mystery novels of Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark. I forgot that slasher stories and mysteries are not the same thing. But even once we knew who the killer was, the suspense didn’t diminish. We still didn’t know why.

So in terms of plot and suspense, this was really good.

As for the characters…I liked them. They were different than the leads you typically see in horror films. Makani is half-Hawaiian, half-African-American. New to Nebraska, it’s literally just corn fields to her. Her best friend is transitioning from female to male and her crush is a semi-goth dude with pink hair. Like, you would never see that in a movie. And I appreciated that diversity.  (Note: Apparently Netflix has acquired the rights to this and is turning it into a movie for 2019?  That’s what I hear.)

And admittedly, they didn’t do the stupid things most horror movie teens do, like going into the basement or the shed that weird noises are coming from. But with so much going on in the plot, it was hard to feel like I really got to know the characters. Especially when they’re all so secretive the whole time.

And I know that a lot of teens experience a lot of horrible things (hazing, absent parents, drugs, deaths in the family, etc.) but this was really dark on that front for me. Content should be rated M for Mature. There’s a veritable minefield here. Originally, I’d been hoping this was something I could recommend to my middle schoolers, but that’s a big fat NOPE.

It was good. Will I read it again? No. But it was worth the first read.

Glass Sword (Red Queen, #2)

Image result for glass swordFirst Lines: I flinch.  The rag she gives me is clean, but it still smells like blood.  I shouldn’t care.  I already have blood all over my clothes.  The red is mine, of course.

It’s kind of a great feeling to start a series and realize that all the books are already out, you know?  It’s a rare feeling for me, but I got into this party super late.  But it’s super fun to know that I can binge all of these if I want to.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Mare may have Red blood, but her Silver abilities separate her from everyone else.  Now that she’s learned to control the lightning she feels in her blood, she’s a huge weapon against the Silvers–and everyone on both sides knows it.  King Maven is determined not to let her go, but Mare is just as determined to recruit as many people as she can find to her side.  It’s a dangerous road and not everyone will live to tell the tale–will it be worth it?

I liked the first book in this series, but I thought this one was fantastic.

In the last book, Mare was struggling for survival. She was thrust into the world of Silvers and learned how to play their game. This time around, she applied it. She used Silver thinking against them, with the help of her friends.

Gone is the scared, weak Mare. In her place is a girl who is watchful, distrustful, and dangerous. And this sets up an interesting situation because there are times when we see/it is pointed out to Mare that sometimes she crosses lines she really shouldn’t. She’s not an antihero, but she’s definitely a hero with some serious flaws and I liked that. Her flaws are nothing to sneeze at or just flaws thrown in to spice up her character. It’s fundamental to her.

And the cast of characters keeps getting bigger–with still little to no idea who Mare can trust. But there are so many different people, personalities, and talents in this book that there was always something to see and keep track of. I really like that.

This book gets a lot darker than the last one too. There are harsher realities to Red life in this one, revenge, and the brutal killing of innocents in this. You can feel the weight of every decision on Mare’s shoulders because she is the one trying to save everyone. Even those she has no hope of saving. It’s harsh, but I never found the details to be too graphic or anything that made me put the book down to calm down.

There is a TON of action in this book. There’s always something happening and Mare’s in the thick of it 90% of the time. But some of that action is tension between characters that needs some kind of resolution, so it wasn’t just fights and death. I had a hard time putting this book down.

And now I need to see how quickly I can get my hands on the next book.

2018 — A Year in Review

Ok, so I’m not normally the kind of person who likes to take a look back at the last year and all that, but since this year was…well, 2018 and something of a dumpster fire, I figured it could be cathartic.

So first, let’s talk about the good stuff.  LET’S TALK ABOUT BOOKS.

Image result for book excitement gif

According to my Goodreads account, my year looks something like this:

  • I’ve read 117 books this year (falling quite short of my 2015 record of 173, but still a solid number).
  • This translates to roughly 44,796 pages, which is also solid but again short of my 2015 record of 64,328 pages.  (And that year, Goodreads didn’t track rereads.  0_0)
  • Mostly, I rate books 4/5 stars.  I will admit that part of this is laziness, but also partly because I tend to read books that I like and if it doesn’t completely blow me out of the water, I’m not going to give it a five.  Hence, a four.
  • I’ve only had 2 DNF’s this year.  Surprisingly, this is about 2 more than normal because I can’t bring myself to not finish a book.  But I’m learning that if I think it sucks, why waste the time?
  • My longest book was The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon at 979 pages (a reread from the Outlander series) which I started rereading to prepare for season 4 of the show.  Fiery Cross is book 5, but I got on a roll and I remembered how much I liked this one.
  • I’ve also had a significant uptick in romance novels that I read.  I think this is two-fold.  1) I have less of a stigma now about reading what I want and 2) these books typically have great character development, funny plots, and happy endings, which has been really nice considering how dark the news has been.

Now let’s kind of take a look at more of what’s been going on personally.

  • Technically starting in November 2017, I started falling in for-real love with my high school crush.  In many respects, it was a dream come true.  I’d wondered what it would be like to be with him for so long that to actually be able to kiss him and cuddle with him?  It was great.
  • Until it wasn’t.  There were layers to him I’d never known about.  He kept secrets from me and started doing drugs in front of me (something I loudly and vehemently let him know was NOT OK).  I ended things with him in May when it all became too much.
  • Attended a cousin’s wedding.  While it looked nice (and the bride comes from a bit of money), it was also a bit redneck.  They served Little Caesar’s pizza at the reception.  LITTLE CAESAR’S.
  • It’s been years in the making, but I have now earned the family reputation of being The One Who Will Turn Anything Into a Dirty Joke.  Thank you.  This award will take a place of honor among my things.
  • I’ve watched a friend lose her job in the wake of the #MeToo movement.  She threw something across the room to get a student’s attention and it accidentally hit him in the face.  Parents were informed, principal talked to her, everything was fine.  Next day, she’s in huge trouble after the parents talked to their kid.  Suspended for 3 days.  But it was snowballing by then and the parents wanted nothing less than her head on a pike.  After her suspension, she was fired.  (Let it be known, there is a male teacher at my school who, it is well known by the administration, throws chalkboard erasers at students daily.)  Now, she has arguably a better job than she did before and the principal of her old school is now struggling to fill her position and grades the homework himself since short-term subs can’t do that.  #Karma
  • This was The Year I Got My Extended Family Interested in Genealogy.  (Immediate family is a lost cause.)  It’s been like 4 years in the making, but hallelujah, I can finally talk about family history with family!  (Nearly every one of them doesn’t care about it if they don’t know the people personally, so it’s frustrating.)  But once I was able to organize everything into easily accessible binders, they’ve all been fawning over me to get their hands on the binders.
  • This was also the Year I Almost Bought A House.  During October, I made an offer on a cute little ranch.  Only problem was it was a bachelor pad and the guy was not handy at all.  Problems compounded.  When I got the inspection done, they pointed out thing after thing we didn’t see before, like how the windows were rotted through.  When I asked for money to fix the windows, they tried to stonewall me and bully me into taking virtually nothing.  It was a horrible experience.  I felt almost every day like no one was looking out for me (especially not my realtor) and I was fighting everything on my own while knowing nothing about real estate.  About 1.5 months after I made my initial offer and 3.5 weeks after I alerted them that I was 1000% done with this house, they finally let me out of my deal when I threatened to take further action to get my earnest money back.  I did not mince words.  Sometimes, getting on your broomstick and making threats gets things done.
  • I’m now teaching strictly one grade level rather than two.  It has its perks, I admit.  Like I don’t have to spend nearly as much time planning anymore.  If I get an idea, I just roll with it and I’m done.  But the bad news?  I’ve gone from grading 80-100 essays at one time (depending on the size of that grade level) to getting about 140 at once.  It makes a difference.
  • OUTLANDER SEASON 4 IS AMAZING.  Also, Call the Midwife.  And The Last Kingdom.  You want historical fiction shows, I can point you in the right direction.
  • I learned a ton of French this year!  I can actually understand most of it when I read it or hear it in movies.  Well, hearing’s debatable, but I can read the subtitles well.  I have a Duolingo streak of like 240 days that I’m massively proud of.
  • This was also the year I sucked up my pride and tried out for a musical again, my first time in about 8 years.  The audition went horribly, but at least I did it.
  • I’ve taken up painting more seriously.  And knitting.  I’ve created some really interesting works in both that I’m proud of.

Of course, it’s hard to summarize a year into a few bullet points, but I think I’ve hit some of the biggest points.  It’s been an interesting year to say the least.

Hopefully, your year has been full of more ups than downs.

And here’s hoping that 2019 brings with it some better luck than this year did.  I’d really like to buy a house in 2019, for starters.

Top Ten Favorite Holiday Reads

Happy Holidays everyone!  It’s getting awful close to Christmas and I don’t know about you, but I’m very much looking forward to the holidays and winter break.  (Teachers LOVE breaks.)

I’ve been trying to read a few Christmas stories lately and I started thinking that maybe I needed to compile my favorites here, to share the holiday spirit with all of you.  Trust me, with a name like Holly, I’m full of Holiday Cheer.  (Everyone spends the entire month of December singing about how pretty I am!  How could I not be cheerful?)

So here we go!  Perhaps you’ll find a favorite on this list or find something new to read just in time for the holidays.  Either way, enjoy!

Top Ten Favorite Holiday Reads

1. The Afterlife of Holly Chase by Cynthia Hand

So, obviously, this is the book that inspired this list.  (And the fact that Christmas break is COMING!)  But seriously, for anyone looking for a modern twist on an old classic (A Christmas Carol), you need to check this out.  Pronto.  It’s amazing and really reminds you of the meaning of Christmas.

2. What Light by Jay Asher

This is such a cute story.  Short and sweet, it totally shows the struggles of the Christmas season.  Sierra’s family owns a Christmas tree farm in Oregon and every year they haul their trees to California for Christmas.  And there–Sierra meets a guy who makes her look at the world a little differently.  It’s worth a look.

3. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I had to put the classic on the list, though I only read it for the first time a year or two ago.  I was glad I could finally say I’d read it, but truly?  The movies based on it are pretty much spot on.

4. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

Ah, the master of Irony.  I love O. Henry as an author and this short story is a classic.  A tale of a husband and wife, too poor to buy gifts for their spouses, who do what they have to to show their love to each other.  The irony gets me every time.

5. Hot Cocoa Hearts by Suzanne Nelson

This is a cute little story about a teenage girl and boy who like each other–and how the girl hates Christmas.  If I remember right, she works as an elf at the mall…which, yeah, would probably show you some of the worst of humanity.  But, as she finds out, she also sees some of the best.  And it’s adorbs.

6. Forever Christmas by Robert Tate Miller

Ok, no, YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND.  Growing up, there was always this movie on ABC Family that my family watched every year.  ALL OF US.  Mom, Dad, me, brothers.  We all loved this cheesy movie called Three Days starring Kristin Davis and Reed Diamond.  It’s a little dark as far as Christmas stories go (a bit like The Afterlife of Holly Chase, actually), but it’s a must-watch for me every Christmas, even if they never play it on TV anymore and it’s not even on DVD and I have to watch it off YouTube.  (I’m not bitter…)  And THEN IT BECAME A BOOK.  NOW I CAN READ THE BOOK TOO.

The point of the story is that Andy and Beth Farmer were high school sweethearts who married and went to the Big City (Boston).  When Beth dies in an accident after learning Andy was cheating on her, Andy learns he is going to be able to relive the last three days to try to prove to Beth that he loves her, to bring him some closure.  But no matter what, on Christmas Eve (the end of the three days), Beth will die again.

I promise you, it’s SO GOOD.

7. My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories edited by Stephanie Perkins

TWELVE HOLIDAY STORIES.  BY SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE AUTHORS.  It’s adorable and amazing and cute and snuggly all at the same time.  Though some of that also depends on the story you’re currently reading.  But I do remember enough.

8. Let It Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle

When you put John Green and Maureen Johnson in the same book, I’m so in.  This carries both of their outrageous, realistic teen voices in their characters.  (I’m not all that familiar with Myracle, but I’m pretty sure she shines too.)  It’s just so funny.  I still remember quotes from this.  (Also, the news was just announced a few days ago that they’re turning this into a Netflix movie for next Christmas.  Something to keep in mind.)

9. Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Speaking of quotes, this is one of the most quotable Christmas books on this list.  I have three notebooks full of quotes and I think this book easily took up 2-3 pages because it’s full of wisdom about family, fate, the holidays, winter, etc.  It’s gorgeous.  This, brought to you by the writers of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

10. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

I don’t typically read the story anymore, but I love the movie.  (Jim Carrey, 2000.  Genius.)  It’s totally worth the watch/read this season.  (Ok, yes, I cheated on this final one.  It turns out most of the Christmas stories I actually read are historical romances or novellas in a series and that didn’t feel right to include them on the list.)

The Afterlife of Holly Chase

Image result for the afterlife of holly chaseFirst Lines: The first thing you should probably know is that Yvonne Worthington Chase was dead.  It was all over the news when it happened, the entertainment shows, the newspapers and magazines, even the trashy tabloids.  A sudden tragedy–that’s how the media described it, because she was only fortysomething when it happened, plus Yvonne was famous, so her death was considered a much bigger deal than an ordinary person’s.

I was so excited to see this book come out.  1) Cynthia Hand has never steered me wrong before.  2) It was a Christmas story and I freaking love Christmas stories.  3) The main character shares my name.  I was stoked to read this.

On Christmas Eve five years ago, Holly Chase was visited by three ghosts who showed her how selfish and mean-spirited she was to those around her.  They tried to get her to change.  She didn’t listen.  And then she died.  Now, as a ghost herself, she works as the Ghost of Christmas Past for Project Scrooge, a company that tries to reform one Scrooge-esque person each year.  Every year, it’s the same thing–and old miser, a sob story, three ghosts, and a new outlook on life.  And it’s been miserable for Holly.  But this year…things are about to change…

This book was absolutely wonderful.

A modern retelling/spin on A Christmas Carol, Holly Chase is a Scrooge. She only cares about herself and how many Instagram followers she has. It doesn’t matter that she’s mean to the help or that she blows off her dad all the time–it only matters that she looks good while doing it. And when three ghosts visit her on Christmas Eve…Holly doesn’t learn her lesson. And dies months later. But that’s not the end of her story. In fact, she now has to take the place of the Ghost of Christmas Past and try to help others who are just like her avoid her fate.

The ties to the original Dickens tale are very present but not Easter Eggs. Actually, they’re a large part of the story. With every Scrooge they focus on, they try to find a way to make their story fit the Scrooge narrative–where’s the Crachit? Where’s Tiny Tim and Belle? I liked that it wasn’t hidden but was actually woven creatively into the story.

Holly, as you would expect, starts off fairly unlikable. But after she becomes the Ghost of Christmas Past, she starts to change and she’s more manageable. Even when she was being really mean, I still found that I understood her, and I think that’s a sign of great writing.  You understand that a part of it is an act, something she’s been taught to do rather than actually how she truly feels.

And the writing got so much better from there. Descriptive and subtle, it was the kind of book I didn’t want to put down. I stayed up past my bedtime to finish it and didn’t regret it. Yes, there are parts that are predictable, but I found myself making my predictions and then anxiously waiting to see if I was right. I was always excited to see what would happen next.

And the ending…keep some tissues handy is all I’ll say. It was so so good and I spent so much time thinking about it even after I finished the book.

Read this. It’s so worth it.