Top Ten Books I Want in My Personal Library

Oooooh, you guys, this one is so freaking EASY!  I don’t normally have it this easy with these lists!  But seeing as I’ve made a ThriftBooks wishlist, all I had to do was look at that!

You know, I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I HAVE A FREAKING LIBRARY IN MY HOUSE and I’ve spent a good portion of this summer trying to build it up with some of my favorite books.  This list is so absolutely perfect for me.

Maybe this is weird, but my particular quirk when it comes to buying books is that I need to have read it and loved it before I’ll buy it.  I don’t buy movies without watching them first, so why wouldn’t I do that with books?  I’m saying that to acknowledge that I’ve read all of the books listed below.

Let’s look!

Top Ten Books I Want in My Personal Library

1. These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

One of the absolute best historical mysteries I’ve ever read in my life.  Dark, twisted, and haunting, I just have to have this.  It’s been a few years since I first read this (and I haven’t read it again since), so I’m hoping that when I do reread it, it’ll be a brand new adventure again.

2. Lady Thief by A.C. Gaughen

This is the second in the Scarlet series.  I got the first book from Thriftbooks earlier this summer and I found the third in my library’s used book sale, so this is all I need to complete this series.  And frankly, the second book is probably the best book.  So I need to get on that.

3. The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

I adore Maureen.  I’m working on putting together a collection of my favorite books of hers and this series is near the top of that list.  Hilarious, dark, and wicked, it’s something I could read over and over again easily.

4. Bloodlines by Richelle Mead

I have the entire Vampire Academy series in my possession, but it was Bloodlines that really stole my heart.  (I’m totally Sydney, even though I’d love to be Rose.)  I’d love to have Sydney and Adrian’s story alongside Rose and Dimitri’s.

5. Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

In my opinion, the Clockwork Angel series was better than City of Bones.  I used to have City of Bones, but I took it to school for my students and someone ran off with it.  So I’m just shifting gears and I’d rather have Angel instead.

6. Beauty by Robin McKinley

Ok, what self-respecting Beauty and the Beast superfan doesn’t have this classic on her shelf?  It’s embarrassing.  (Not really.)  But I am trying to amass a collection of retellings that I enjoy and this would be absolutely fantastic for that.

7. A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis

Have I mentioned before that I think stories about crazy people are interesting?  This historical drama-ish thing is worth it.  So twisted, so real.  I’d love to add this to the other books I own that make people worry about my sanity.  (Looking at you, Splintered.)

8. World After by Susan Ee

I have the first book in this series, Angelfall, and I need this one to built that series.  I absolutely love rereading these books; I’ve read Angelfall like 3-4 times.  So I know it will be worth the investment.

9. Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel

This futuristic zombie story with a Victorian flare is just a lot of fun.  I enjoyed reading it when I stumbled on it years ago and I thought it would be fun to add to my shelf.  Maybe next to my Poe books?  Or perhaps next to Alice in Zombieland would be more appropriate.

10. Boundless by Cynthia Hand

This is another one I’m trying to get so I have the whole series.  It’s kind of amazing how many series I’ve bought early books for but not the last ones.

The Host (2013 movie)

Image result for the host movieChoose your destiny.

I just realized I’ve never done a review for this movie.  I saw this movie a few years ago for the first time (probably within a couple years of it coming out), but lately it sounded good again.  I pretty much forgot what was in the movie, but the book is one of my favorites and I certainly didn’t forget the plot.

In case you don’t know the story, a parasitic race of aliens has taken over Earth.  They claim to bring peace to the planet, but the few remaining humans are fighting to retain their minds.  Melanie Stryder is part of the resistance until she’s captured and a soul (the name the aliens call themselves) named Wanderer bonds with her.  But Melanie won’t go without a fight and it isn’t long before Melanie and Wanderer realize they need each other to find the family Melanie can’t forget about and Wanderer wants.

That was a really crappy synopsis, but I truly do love the book so much that if I don’t stop myself there, I’m going to end up saying things I shouldn’t.

First of all, this movie just fanned the flame.  I desperately want to reread this book again now, which sucks because I don’t have time for that.  But I’ll get to it again eventually.  It hits me right in the feels each time and I’m so mad about how underappreciated this book actually is.  That’s another topic for another time.

As for the movie itself, it does a pretty decent job of staying true to the original story.  It actually pulls off the dialogue between Melanie and Wanderer really well.  (Melanie and Wanderer are basically the same person, so it’s a fine like to walk to make sure audiences are always aware of who is speaking.)  But the book is something like 600 pages long and this movie is about 2 hours, so obviously a lot is shortened or missing completely.

That does, unfortunately, make the movie feel less cohesive.  The bonds between the characters aren’t as obvious.  It sometimes doesn’t make sense that a character would risk so much to save another when they’ve barely spent five minutes on screen together.  Having read the book multiple times, I completely understand what’s going on and why.  But I don’t think non-readers would get it as well.

I remember thinking this the last time I watched this and I definitely thought it this time: the guys all look so ridiculously similar that I literally can’t tell them apart.  It was like the casting agent called for all hot guys with chiseled cheekbones and cast them all.  I kept confusing one character for another because they just looked so alike.  It’s kind of hilarious.  The only one I didn’t struggle with was Ian (played by Jake Abel) because A) I know him from Supernatural and B) he was skinny while all the other guys were bulky.

It’s not that the acting was bad either, but everyone was virtually the same in this.  And, ok, I will admit that the acting isn’t the best at times.  Sometimes it seems really awkwardly played.  However, there are moments where I could tell the actors totally got their characters.  Uncle Jeb (played by William Hurt) was one of those.  He walked that line between madness and wisdom like a champ, which is why I love Uncle Jeb.

I do love this story and I think, if you don’t have time to read the book, this is a good enough version.  But, once again, the book is way better.


An Affair of Poisons

Image result for an affair of poisonsFirst Lines: My laboratory reeks of death.  Not of blood and flesh and decay, but the garlicky bite of arsenic, the musty essence of hemlock, and the sweet smell of oleander–like rose water and citrus.

This book caught my eye at the library because, well, it looked historical and am I really going to pass something up where the cover talks about a king killer and poison?  No, I’m not.  Not without looking a little closer first.  When it still looked good, I took it home with me.

After unknowingly helping her mother kill King Louis XIV of France, Mirabelle Monvoisin suddenly realizes her mother’s Shadow Society isn’t who they’ve always claimed they are.  They were supposed to help the poor, to aide those the king was ignoring.  It was never supposed to be about getting power and killing the king.  Josse de Bourbon is the son of a king and a maid, forced to be more of a kitchen boy than a prince.  When his father, King Louis XIV, is killed by the Shadow Society, it’s up to Josse to protect his half-siblings.  Hiding the sewers beneath the city, Josse is desperate to save his sisters, though he doesn’t know how to bring reason back to a city that seems to have lost all sense.  His path crosses with Mirabelle and the two of them begin planning.  A poisoner and a prince–the unlikely combination may be the only thing that saves Paris.

I thought this was really interesting! A genre-blending read that was something of a historical fantasy.

The story itself is fascinating and intense. Initially taken from an actual historical event, it starts with a poisoning. A poisoner named La Voisin kills King Louis XIV of France because of his decadence and neglect of his poorer subjects. (This is where it diverges from history. Louis didn’t die.) With the king dead, now La Voisin is trying to take his place as ruler, but ruling is never as easy as it looks.

Our narrators were what made the story, though. Mira’s mother is La Voisin. Mira is the alchemist in charge of making all of the tinctures and poisons she uses to help citizens. Mira’s left in the dark about the plot to kill the king and she’s devastated when she sees what her actions have caused. Mira has a good heart, but she’s a flawed character. She wants to help people, but her past keeps getting in the way. Josse is the bastard son of the king and a maid. Working as a kitchen boy, Josse becomes his half-siblings’ only means of survival because he’s the least recognizable of the five of them. His main objective is to keep his youngest half-sisters alive and he’ll do whatever he has to to secure that. He’s also a very flawed character, sometimes hotheaded and impulsive among other things.

I mean, these characters, all of them, are complex. Which is the best way to write characters. La Voisin, even, is both good and horribly despicable. None of the characters are all good or all bad and it was so refreshing to read about characters who do walk that line. You understand where they’re coming from even if it’s hard to stomach.

The fantasy elements I thought were fairly well done. Mostly that boiled down to the alchemy Mira was able to do and a little bit of magic that crept into the story. It was enough to give it a different feel to the story without making it feel like it was taking away from the actual history this was all based on.

While it took me a little while to get into the story, I did actually really enjoy this. For a debut, it’s a solid read.

Top Ten Favorite Tropes

Ooh, this is going to be an interesting one.  Tropes are kind of a big thing that pulls most of us into certain books.  We see those trends coming and we get excited–because they’ve worked in other books.  Of course, sometimes they go horribly (looking at you, love triangles), but more often they work pretty well.  I’m trying to think of what exactly it is that draws me in about my favorite books and I think I have a few ideas.

So let’s take a look at some!

Top Ten Favorite Tropes

1. Girl goes to new/unknown world

This is probably the one that I read the most when it comes to fantasy or historical fiction.  This is Alice in Wonderland.  This is The Wizard of Oz.  This is A Court of Thorns and Roses.  This is a historical fiction novel about Jamestown.  I like it when the story dives into a world that is vastly different from our own because it’s sometimes easier to show lessons about our own world.

2. Forbidden love

It’s the basic Romeo and Juliet effect: boy and girl cannot be together.  But they love each other and want to be with each other.  That breathless recklessness is a lot of fun to read.

3. Girl sacrifices herself and lives with a dude in a fancy manor and falls in love with him.

Oh, is that too oddly specific?  I actually immediately thought of at least 4 books/series that employed it, the most obvious of them being Beauty and the Beast.  (Oh, did I just work in my favorite story into this list?)  Again, this works for ACOTAR, but it also even works for certain myths, like the myth of Cupid and Psyche or even Persephone and Hades.  All of them call for a girl who is selfless (well, Persephone was kidnapped and Psyche tricked, but modern retellings give them more agency) and willingly embarks upon an adventure that seems kind of stupid at first.  But God, if it isn’t my all time favorite type of story.

4. Falling for the best friend

These love stories are just the cutest.  They’re the ones where the girl falls for the boy next door who’s been her friend forever.  Or the one where it’s her brother’s best friend, but she’s known him forever.  That kind of history…you can’t fake that.  It creates a bond between two people that resonates on a different level.

5. Enemies fall in love

On the flip side, I also love the stories where two people can’t stand each other and fall in love.  Like 10 Things I Hate About You or Much Ado About Nothing.  Maybe there’s a dare or maybe they’re forced to partner together for some project, but they just loathe each other…until they see they’re really not that different after all.  I also like those stories because the verbal sparring between the couple is usually superb and I love a good sarcasm battle.

6. Life from the “Other Side”

I have this weird fascination with how religions and individual people portray the Afterlife.  So those stories where someone has died and we see them fighting to get back to life or whatever, those are fun for me.  And thematically, they hit the hardest.  I know after I read those, I’m going to look at my own life a little differently.

7. Life or death choices

Similar to the previous one, this is more of that moment (either early or late in the story) where the main character has a literal life or death choice.  Like If I Stay.  Like in Deathly Hallows.  How they make those choices is truly fascinating, as they weigh their options.  Because most of the time, neither choice is good.  It’s all about what they’re willing to give up.

8. Murder, she wrote

Alright, so while I don’t often read them, I do enjoy a good murder mystery.  I don’t know if this is actually a trope or not, but something like Truly Devious really hits the spot sometimes.  (Unless it’s night time and I’m at home by myself.)  I grew up on Agatha Christie novels, so I have a high standard for mysteries.  I don’t want to be able to figure it out in the first few chapters.  I just like seeing the mystery unfold and trying to guess for myself who did it.

9. Celeb falls for the “normal” person

I almost forgot about this one!  I’m a sucker for these.  Whether they’re singers, actors, lords/ladies, or kings/queens, I love when someone who’s famous falls for someone who is traditionally seen as “normal” or, in the case of my historical romances, “lower class.”  I don’t know why I’m drawn to these, except maybe it’s for a similar reason to my enemies-turned-lovers situation: they don’t think they have much in common until they truly talk.

Oh Jesus, it all comes back to not judging people on their appearances.  That’s what it is.  Beauty and the Beast strikes again!

10. Good vs. Evil

The classic.  Most stories fantasy stories have that good vs. evil fight at some point.  Harry Potter, ACOTAR, Throne of Glass, just to name a few.  On a smaller scale, it’s in stories about bullying or abuse.  It’s a tale as old as time itself, really.  We’re taught that good will always triumph.  That doesn’t always happen in the real world, but it usually does in the stories.  And that hopeful better-world ideology is something that I very much enjoy.

Why You Should Take Chances: An Essay

Hey everyone!  I’m writing this because I learned a valuable lesson over the last few days and it has done wonders for my confidence.

Let me back up to about February to start this story.

I’ve been working with my school’s show choir for three years.  I was crew chief, in charge of staging and making sure everything got on and off stage and loaded onto the bus when we were done.  But I was getting tired of the gig because my passion has always been what happens on stage, not back stage.

Our choreographer the last two years has been a self-centered, demanding man-child.  I could list all the awful things he’s done, but basically he thought he was the director, not any of us who actually were the directors.  My director was thinking of getting rid of him because of all the horrible things he was doing and saying, but he didn’t know where he could find another choreographer.

I volunteered to lend my talents.

I did show choir myself for five years and dancing has been really my only form of exercise since then.  I love dancing and feeling music move me.  So I wasn’t completely out of my depths.

But I was more than a little out of my depths.

Since I’d never done it before, I said I would do two of the five dance numbers.  It would be enough to get a taste for it and decide whether or not I could actually do it.  I spent the summer working on them, an hour here, an hour there, watching my own old show choir tapes for ideas.

I struggled a lot.  It was a huge challenge, made harder in part because I can’t really read music.  But I do know how to dance and I know my kiddos, so I was trying to do my best for them.  I knew a number of them were excited that I would be doing this.

Then we had show choir camp.

Image result for show choir gif

Show choir camp, for us, is three days of the kids learning choreography and getting to know each other.  We start around 8:30, warm up, learn choreography, play some team building games, eat lunch, sing, and learn more choreography before going home at 2.  These are middle schoolers, so it was about as much as they could handle.

The first day of camp, our other choreographer taught part of his song.  I was so nervous about having to teach mine the next day that I was watching him closely to see how he taught but also how difficult his moves were.  Were mine too easy?  Would mine look good mashed up against his?  I mean, this guy had been doing this since 1993, when I was two years old.  If I could emulate him, surely I’d be fine.

And as I watched him, I became a little more confident in myself.  His moves weren’t all that different from mine.  The styles were similar.  And when he taught, he just tried to keep it simple.  (He’s also an elementary school music teacher, so he knew how to handle the kids.)

I went home that night and immediately made some changes to what I’d done.  Nothing big, but I wanted to review my choreography so I wouldn’t look like a complete idiot in front of them.  And I wanted to step up a few of the moves that were maybe a little too easy or didn’t make sense in sequence.

The next day, it was my turn.

I was nervous and everyone who was my friend knew it.  I made no secret of telling everyone I thought this would kind of crash and burn.  Everyone kept telling me I’m already a teacher, I would be a natural.  And yes, there was that, but I haven’t danced in front of anyone like that in 10 years.  My moves aren’t tight and precise, and I knew they’d ask questions about foot position or hands that I hadn’t thought of yet.

So when I got up in front of them, I told the kids that.  I was honest and upfront: this was my first time doing this and if they had a question about something that I didn’t have an answer to, we’d work together to come up with it.  Most of the kids already knew me (at least a little) from the last few years, so it wasn’t like I had to teach it to kids I didn’t know.  If a kid acted up, I knew his/her name and how to handle them.

Anyway, I started teaching and worked my way through it.  Sure, I made mistakes.  I forgot the moves I had literally just taught the kids.  I didn’t always explain the footwork as well as I should have.  I didn’t always know what they needed.

But the kids were quick to help me.  I’d just ask if they wanted to run through it again or if they were ready to try it to music.  I’d ask if they needed anything clarified and then I’d go back through that hard footwork.  Sometimes the 8th graders gave me suggestions.  I’d try to give them weird names to go along with a move so they’d remember it.  (“Dolphin arms!”  “Step and punch!”  “Ok, now we’re boxing!”)  More than once, I made them laugh and we just generally had a good time.

And you know what?  By the end of the day, they were begging me to run the song over and over again without my help.  They loved my choreography.  I had no idea how anything would look on stage, but apparently my instincts were pretty good because there were a couple of really awesome moves that looked so good in the mirror when 40 kids did it at the same time that I couldn’t stop giggling.

The best part was how adults walking in and out were reacting.  My principal came in a few times to talk with the director and saw me.  My principal and I have been at odds for most of the time I’ve worked here because he thinks I need to come out of my shell more, not understanding what it means to be an introvert and a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).  But for him to see me in front of the group, teaching choreography, it was awesome.

My director said my principal came in and went, “Is that Holly?” and the director went, “This is all her.  She did all of this.”  So my principal watched for a while and allegedly said, “Woah,” when we got to the super impressive move that the kids love.

The kids were saying good things, too.  At the end of the day they gave me a round of applause.  A few made comments to me like how one girl said, “I was nervous when I heard an English teacher was going to be doing our choreography, but you’re actually really good.”

My best friend at school came down to see how they were doing in the afternoon and my director immediately went up to them and started bragging about me.  He was saying, “This is all her.  She did all of this.  It’s a whole new side of Holly.”  She said he couldn’t stop saying nice things.

The ironic thing is that what they saw was the side of me that I feel like I am most of the time when I’m just being me, not the professional persona I wear at school.  I was just trying to have fun with the kids.  There was no room for being self-conscious.  The kids didn’t care and we didn’t have time for that.

On my second day teaching and the final day of camp, I started seeing how it was all paying off.  The newest members who didn’t know me before were seeking me out for extra help or to say something random, just to be talking to me.  The older members (also the ones who are usually too cool to talk to the teacher) were more willing to ask me questions if the director was unavailable.

And during water games, they were all dead-set on drenching me.  In years past, for something like that, they wouldn’t have messed with me because they wouldn’t have known how I would react well enough to want to do that.  This year?  No problem.

Unfortunately, that meant my sneakers were soaked.  I hadn’t brought extra shoes.

I spent the rest of camp in my (thankfully dry) socks, teaching the end of the dance.  Once, when I was demonstrating a move, I slipped and did the splits.  You could hear the kids gasp, but I just laughed.  I just turned to them and said, “Ok, we’re not doing the splits here.  That’s not the move.”  And it was fine.  I wasn’t hurt and it was just a funny moment.

It was when I was thinking about that later I realized how much I had changed in just two days.

Before, I used to be really hesitant with the kids.  I wouldn’t feel like it was my place to make certain comments.  I’d feel like I wasn’t part of the group because I only really started showing up in January, when they had already gone through so much without me present.

But now, these kids are acting so much different than I expected.  The fact that I’ll have about 10 of them in class this year has really started to show too.  Some of them, I think, are really looking forward to it.  Instead of me going, “I have you in class this year,” they’re coming to me saying, “I have you fifth period this year!”

Internally, I’m feeling these changes.  I finally feel like I can be more myself.  I think a big part of that has been living alone this summer, spending most of my time doing what I want without caring what anyone thought.  If I wanted to sing at the top of my lungs, I could.  If I wanted to dance through my house or bake cookies or do a puzzle or not do my dishes for a couple days, no one cared.  It’s been really liberating and I think that’s starting to show elsewhere.

The point of all this is to say that I was super nervous going into this because I’d never doing anything remotely close to choreography before.  I’d almost never been the center of attention with that group before, especially not for that length of time.

But everyone had such nice things to say, even when I did make mistakes.  The kids were so encouraging and so was the director.

This year is going to be different.  I can already feel it.

Not If I Save You First

Image result for not if i save you firstFirst Lines: Madeleine Rose Manchester had absolutely no intention of invading the White House.  But she knew seven different ways she could do it if she’d wanted to.

Let’s not pretend that I was going to turn down an Ally Carter book after reading the Embassy Row series not too long ago.  This looked intriguing and when I saw it at the library, I snagged it.

Maddie and Logan were supposed to be best friends forever, but when you’re the daughter of a Secret Service agent and your friend is the President’s son, plans don’t always turn out like you want.  After a kidnapping gone wrong, Maddie’s dad secrets her away to the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.  For six years, Maddie hears nothing from Logan.  So when Logan suddenly appears back in her life…she wants to kill him.  Before she can do anything, an assailant kidnaps Logan and knocks Maddie off a cliff.  Maddie knows she’s Logan’s only hope for survival and, with the weather turning bad and the animals always a danger, she needs to be smart about it.  She still wants to kill Logan, but she has to save him first.

I’ve said this before and I will say this again: every Ally Carter book is essentially the same, but man, if they aren’t hard to put down.

Maddie “Mad Dog” Manchester is a typical Carter heroine. When her dad gets hurt in the line of duty while Maddie watches, her dad makes the decision to move them to the middle of nowhere, Alaska, away from man-made danger. This gives Maddie the interesting perspective of being able to anticipate human behavior (from her days watching her dad) but also the perspective of being able to survive in the wilderness. She’s spent six years in Alaska, with no one around for 20 miles in any direction. She’s sassy, smart, and stubborn.

As usual, the suspense and danger are on point. It’s hard to put down her books because the conflicts are so enthralling. The danger is exciting and, in a way, pretty fun. I knew what I was getting into, which was nice. I marked out a chunk of time to read and just let myself enjoy the ride.

What was a little different about this book than most of Carter’s other books is that this is actually pretty realistic. It doesn’t take place in a fake foreign country or at a school for spies. It’s Maddie, Logan, a bad guy, and the Alaskan wilderness. I’d actually go so far as to say the wilderness becomes something close to a character because it’s always on Maddie’s mind. And for good reason.

This was fun. Exciting. It’s not going to be life changing and it’s probably not the first book I’m going to recommend to people, but I enjoyed the change of pace.