Best of 2014

I’ve never done a best-of-the-year list before, but I love reading them, and I’ve consumed a lot of really good stories this year. So here’s a list of my favorite things of the year.

Favorite Books Read

As of today, December 20, I’ve read 96 books towards my goal of 100 for the year. Eleven days to read 4 more books? No problem! But of those 96, some were fun, some were mediocre, and some were so shockingly wonderful.

woolWool by Hugh Howey

I honestly don’t know if I have enough words to praise this book! My friend Micah told me a couple of years ago to read it, and since then, two other highly respected book friends have recommended it to me, and I finally got around to it a few weeks ago (and have since read the second book in the trilogy). Howey self-published Wool several years ago, and it gained ground quickly, for good reason.

In the first novel, we’re introduced to the residents of a silo, which is a self-contained civilization. There’s a distinct class system, perfectly delineated by the levels of the silo, and everything seems to run as it should. But in the very first chapter of the book, we’re introduced to a sheriff who elects to go to a “cleaning,” in which he is put into a kind of biohazard suit and sent outside the silo to clean the windows…and then to die. Through his perspective, we learn that all is not well within the silo, but this main character is gone before he really gets to narrate any of the story. In the aftermath of his cleaning, the mayor and deputy must appoint a new sheriff, and I won’t tell you anymore because that would strip away all the joy you’ll get in reading this thought-provoking, fascinating dystopian series. The second book, Shift, isn’t as strong as the first one was, but I’m nonetheless eagerly looking forward to the conclusion to the story, Dust.

fangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Everyone loves Rainbow Rowell. With Eleanor & Park, she (deservedly) made a huge name for herself in the YA world. And as wonderful as Eleanor & Park is, her second YA novel Fangirl is far and above my favorite of all the books she’s written (and I’ve read them all this year!). Fangirl, in fact, is the only book I actually read twice this year, and I’m already itching to read it again.

Fangirl is the book I needed long ago, and probably still need now. Cath is beginning her freshman year at college and trying to balance a class load (including a Serious Writing Class) and writing Harry Potter-esque fanfiction. She struggles to maintain her relationship with her twin sister and her father, but she also struggles to define who she is and what she wants. And there’s a great guy named Levi who loves Cath because of her geeky, fangirl ways, and my gosh, doesn’t every fangirl dream of that?

A lot of my less-geeky friends didn’t enjoy Fangirl as much because Rowell blends the story of Cath with excerpts from the fictional Simon Snow stories as well as excerpts from Cath’s fanfiction. It’s such a great love story–both between Cath and Levi as well as for Cath and the worlds of fiction that she loves so much.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I wrote about this in my last blog post about Interstellar, so I won’t summarize or reflect here. But this science fiction novel about Jesuits traveling to space in search of extraterrestrial life is one of the most profoundly moving explorations of faith I’ve ever encountered in fiction. I love it when science fiction, which is often overlooked as being trivial or unworthy, can so accurately depict issues of the human condition. This is a heavy book to read, but it’s a book that has never left me, that I’ll carry with me always.

hawkeyeThe Hawkeye comics by Matt Fraction

I LOVE HAWKEYE. I loved Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of him in The Avengers, obviously, but Matt Fraction has done incredible things with Marvel Now’s Hawkeye series. I bought a subscription to Marvel Unlimited, which allows me access to comics on my tablet, and I burned through all the Hawkeye comics available very quickly. They are funny and moving and just so wonderful. And the best thing about them is that the Hawkeye name is shared–by both Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, who is part of the Young Avengers. The fact that both a male and female can share the name and the responsibility of working with the Avengers is wonderful. There is just so much right about these stories, and the artwork, relying on lots of purple illustrations, is beautiful!

Favorite Movies Watched

grootbabyFavorite Superhero Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy

I mean, really. I saw this four times (as many times as I watched The Avengers in theaters) and had to talk myself out of seeing it at least a dozen more times. It’s funny. And snarky. And super weird and sci-fi. With a great soundtrack. And Chris Pratt. And Groot. My gracious, I love this movie. And as much as I loved X-Men: Days of Future Past and Captain America: Winter Soldier (which were both better than their predecessors), Guardians was definitely my favorite superhero movie released this year.

And everyone needs more dancing baby Groot in her life.

snowpiercerFavorite Dystopian Film: Snowpiercer

All the survivors of the world after a major climate disaster are placed upon a train that continually travels and sustains the life on board. Eighteen years have passed since the disaster, and Chris Evans leads a revolution that reveals the class struggles on board the train. He begins his fight at the end of the train, where he works and lives with all the other lower-class people who must help to power the train. He fights his way through all the classes on board to the very front, where he confronts the leader of the train, played by Ed Harris. It’s violent and gripping and highly revelatory of Marxist class struggles: everything that I look for in a dystopian film. I can’t believe how good this movie is.

grand budapestFavorite Comedy: The Grand Budapest Hotel

To be fair, I don’t watch a lot of comedies, so this one was by far the easiest pick. But this was also one of my favorite movies of the whole year. It’s the first Wes Anderson movie I’ve ever watched (please don’t stone me–I’m a fan now and I’ll make up for it, I promise!), and I laughed out loud through the whole thing. Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H and Zero Moustafa as his Lobby Boy are just the kind of weird characters I wish I could find at hotels. (And the supporting cast: Tilda Swinton and Adrian Brody and Owen Wilson and all the other Wes Anderson regulars!) They fight off Nazis and steal artwork and have grand adventures, and this movie is just so wonderful and wacky and fabulous and lovely.

Favorite Classic Movie that I Should Have Watched Years Ago: 2001: A Space Odyssey2001

I really have no excuse. I’ve even owned this for two or three years. But after Interstellar, which relies heavily on imagery that reflects 2001: A Space Odyssey, I finally watched it–and loved it, of course. The monoliths and Hal 9000 and Dave the Astronaut–it’s such a pivotal, important sci-fi story, and I was riveted through the whole movie. The imagery of space travel is lovely, and the cinematography is astonishing. I mean, the scene of Frank running onboard the round spacecraft! It’s so good! I’m glad I finally watched it, if only to understand jokes about getting shoved out of an airlock.

Favorite Movie About Space: Interstellar

I love Matthew McConaughey. And time travel. And black holes. And this movie.

Favorite Animated MovieThe Lego Movie

An everyman named Emmett (voiced by Chris Pratt) is summoned to save the world from a terrible dictator. It’s a dystopian movie! And it’s funny! And cute! And, yes, it might have some feminist issues, but I had a lot of fun watching this. And Lego Batman is delightful.

‘Mastery of small, telling gestures’: Tom Hardy as a man who goes awol in Locke.Favorite Movie Starring Tom Hardy: Locke

It was hard to choose between this one and The Drop, but ultimately, Locke has to win on the sheer basis that Tom Hardy is THE ONLY PERSON IN THE MOVIE. I mean, sure, we get the voices on the other end of the phone, but the movie is literally just Tom Hardy driving from one place to another, trying to solve a crisis at work, take responsibility for a personal problem that he has, and fix his family life. It’s hard to watch, and Tom Hardy is stellar at telling a story using his voice and facial expressions and reactions to the people on the phone. I was riveted by a movie that literally involves one guy driving down the road the whole time. Tom Hardy is a freaking genius actor, and I wish more people realized that. (Also, he’s beautiful. There’s that.)

In 2014, I saw almost as many movies as the number of books I read. And, honestly, I saw more great movies than read great books. I read books that disappointed me, or angered me, or were just intended to be light, fluffy reads. But with films, I’m drawn to superhero films, sure, but also well-made dramas and insightful, if violent, movies. And there were so many great films that I watched this year that I had a hard time narrowing it down to just these 6. I’m very eager to see what my reading/viewing habits look like in 2015.

As for reading, I found this great reading challenge on Tumblr this morning that I’m going to try. I’m thinking about revising it for a movie-watching challenge, too, for the first time, so stay tuned for that!

reading challenge

On to 2015! 

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Book Challenge: January 2014

I resolved to buy no new books during the month of January and to read one book each month that I had not yet read but that I already owned (previous to January 1, 2014).

It’s is now February 1. I haven’t bought a single book since before Christmas! I have a few stories I want to download on my Kindle app, and I might order Ransom Riggs’ Hollow City today, but I’m also in the middle of reading four books right now, so I’m not in any real hurry. That part of my resolution was successful, as was my vow to read at least one book I already owned.

I also read 13 books, which puts my far ahead of my goal to read 60 books this year, and I’m halfway through another one that I expect to finish today.

Here’s the roundup for January:

Books I owned previous to Jan. 1:

1) Chronicles of Avonlea, by L. M. Montgomery. I thought I’d read this already, I but I think I actually just read the first story because I remembered none of the rest of the stories. The Anne of Green Gables series are some of my favorite books ever, and I like this glimpse into other aspects of Avonlea and the surrounding communities. Montgomery is quaint and faithful and descriptive, and her writing is a refreshing change of pace from the stuff I usually read.

2) August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts. A PulitzerPrize-winning play that has been adapted to a film starring, among others, Benedict Cumberbatch. My friend John read this book a long time ago and has been raving about it. He gave me a copy about a year ago and has been pestering me to read it. I finally did, and man, is it good and crazy. The play focuses on a family brought together by a death. They’re all dysfunctional, but it’s funny and tragic at the same time.

3) The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams. The second book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy that isn’t actually a trilogy. Funny and quirky and smart and delightful.

4) Dial H Volume 1, China Mieville. I own the entire series (which is only 15 issues), but I had not kept up with reading them. Now that the series has concluded, I read the first volume of collected issues. Mieville’s writing is strange and unique, and I love it, but I also recognize that his writing style is not for everyone. I hate that the series was canceled by DC, but I don’t think it was as successful as they’d hoped it would be. Still, I highly recommend this. It’s funny and weird and smart. 

5) The Umbrella Academy in Apocalypse Suite, Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba. This six-issue series is delightful. It’s the story of seven children (most of whom have special abilities) who were adopted and raised as a dysfunctional group of superheroes. When they are older and their father dies, they reunited for the first time in years, with (naturally) disastrous results. I absolutely love Gabriel Ba’s artwork, and Way’s story is unique and wonderful.

Library books:

1) The Name of the Star, Maureen Johnson: The first in a series about ghost hunters in modern-day London. An American girl named Rory moves to England to attend a boarding school and gets involved in a mystery involving a contemporary Jack the Ripper. The book blends a little bit of Victorian London into the modern-day city, and I like Rory’s tenacity. This is different than anything else I’ve read by Maureen Johnson, and I’m eager to read the sequel!

2) Zone One, Colson Whitehead: literary fiction/zombie novel. I wished it could have been better. Here’s my review on Goodreads.

3) Just One Year, Gayle Forman. A companion novel to a book I read last year. Features world travel and Shakespearian plays and fate and romance. A nice, light read.

4) The Madness Underneath, Maureen Johnson. The sequel to The Name of the Star featured a plot twist at the end that broke my heart. And now I have to wait who knows how long for another book to be published. Again, this is why I should always wait until a series is finished to read the books. Will I ever learn?!?

5) Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell. What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? Trust me, it lives up to the hype!

6) Bimbos of the Death Sun, Sharyn McCrumb. My friend Shea (who used to be referred to as “my thesis advisor”) recommended this. McCrumb is an Appalachian writer, and this book is a fun, quirky novel about a murder at a sci-fi convention. It took me a few chapters to get involved, but once I finally did, I had a great time picking out the geek references and trying to figure out which sci-fi nerd actually did the deed. I’ll be reading the sequel, called Zombies of the Gene Pool, soon!

Other books:

1) I finished The Knife of Never Letting Go for the fifth time and still found myself tearing up (though not full-out crying) during the final chapters. This is such a beautiful, wonderful book, and I don’t know how many more years it will take until everyone I know reads it.

2) Insurgent, Veronica Roth! FINALLY! I borrowed it from a friend and read it quickly, of course. I found Tris to be a bit annoying at times because I hated the choices she was making, but I also felt like the ending redeemed much of that. I’ve read some reviews that people thought the ending was too predictable, and it’s true that I did figure out what was going on earlier. However, even books with “predictable” endings can be well-written because it’s often more about how the writer gets to that ending rather than what’s there when we arrive. I have Allegiant in my stack of books to read, but first I want to read the short stories about Tobias that Roth has published and then I’ll finish out the series.

2014 Book Challenge

Let’s begin with a story.

Two weeks ago, I was enjoying a day off. I went to my favorite used book store in Greenville, Mr. K’s, looking specifically for a book for a white elephant gift exchange. In the process, I shopped for myself. I first found a paperback copy of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I love Neil Gaiman, and though I read this book last year, I don’t own a copy; I’d borrowed it from a friend. For $4, I should own this book, right? Of course. 

Next, I headed down the road to 2nd & Charles, which used to be Books-A-Million and now sells used books, DVDs, comics, and all sorts of other goodies. It is, indeed, a delightful place to wander around, and one of my students works there, so I dropped by for a visit. While there, I found a used copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. I own a copy–somewhere–but I’m teaching it for the first time this semester and decided I needed a copy to write notes in. I kept walking and discovered a true treat: a hardcover, used copy of The Knife of Never Letting Go, my favorite book of all-time. I bought it. This is now the fourth copy of this book I have purchased. The first (paperback) I lent to a friend and never got back. The second (paperback) I purchased when I began to write my thesis; inside are all my notes and underlinings, and that marginalia is indeed a treasure. I also own the Kindle version of the book, which I’m currently re-reading (for the fifth time). And now I own the hardcover, which matches the second and third books in the trilogy and looks lovely on my shelf.

When I arrived home, there was a box from Barnes & Noble waiting on me. Inside was a copy of When She Woke, an incredible feminist-dystopian retelling of The Scarlet Letter, which I read last year (checked out from the library). That book had been on sale on B&N’s website. Also, I bought the special edition version of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, one of the greatest young adult novels ever written. Yes, I already own a copy–hardcover, autographed, part of the special edition boxed set released last year. But this cover is silver instead of blue! And is a special edition!

Let’s recap. In a few hours, I acquired five books, all of which I’d previously read. Three of them were at least the second copy (or, in the case of Knife, the fourth) that I’d purchased.

I made a decision that day. I won’t buy any more books during the month of January 2014. I’m limiting myself to a month just as a trial period. If it’s working well, I’ll keep going. I have a feeling, though, that on February 1, I’ll rush to Mr. K’s and buy an armful of books.

Books are, by far, my most valued possessions. And I own SO MANY of them. One bookcase in my room stopped being enough long ago. I have stacks in front of the case, bags and boxes beneath the bed, two bookcases in my office, and half a 10×10 storage unit full of books. Not to mention the boxes still in storage at my parents’ house. I can always validate buying a book (especially since I primarily buy used, both online and in stores). But as a professor, I have so little time to read, with the exception of breaks, that I could not possibly read every book I own if I keep buying as many as I do. So many books are sitting un-read while I keep buying multiple copies of books.

I’m going to a few bookstores this afternoon to prepare myself for my month-long (at least) hiatus. My goal for January and the rest of 2014 is to read the books I own first, or to borrow from friends or the library. Buying books is a wonderful thing, and something I enjoy very much. I work very hard to support my local used book store (as well as BetterWorldBooks.com!), but it’s time to spend time with the books I already own.

My official book challenge for 2014:

1) Don’t buy any new books (new, used, Kindle) during the month of January.

2) Each month throughout 2014, read at least one book that I own but have not yet read. This does not include previously unread books I check out from the library, books borrowed from friends, or books that I own but have already read. I’ll try to post a blog each month on my progress and new reads.

Let’s see how this works! Happy New Year! And happy reading!

December Books

77. The Proposal, Lori Wick.

78. The Compound, S. A. Bodeen. For my trip home for Christmas, I decided to explore the world of books on CD, and this one’s title and premise appealed to me. It’s quite good, and I keep finding myself wondering how I would have liked it if I’d read the words. As involved as the story is, I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to put it down had it been in book form. And while I hesitated to ever listen to a book on CD because I love actual books so much, I think this will be a genre I explore for all the driving back and forth to school that I do.

79. Six Rules of Maybe, Deb Caletti.

So here we are at the end (or, well, the beginning of a new year and a new challenge). I fell 21 books shy of my goal for 100 previously unread books. However, when I challenged myself, I didn’t know what the following year would hold, and I’m pleased to see how far I did get towards my goal. Perhaps next year’s challenge will be more conservative. We shall see.

November Books

Previously unread books for November:

75. Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness. The final book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, some of the best books I’ve ever read.

76. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice, 4th ed., Charles E. Bressler. One of my textbooks for Lit Theory.

So with one more month left in the year, I have 24 books to read to reach my goal. Confession: it probably won’t happen. I read no previously unread books in October (in fact, I only read two total–re-reads of the first 2 books in the Chaos Walking trilogy). Of course, all my classes–both teaching and taking–end within the next two weeks, but then I’ll be gearing up for Christmas and then a pretty epic trip to Haiti, so who knows how much reading I’ll get in? Alas, at least my reading is interrupted by important life-things. I can deal with that.

September Books

Previously unread books:

66. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. My literary theory class is reading this book to analyze.

67. Distant Waves: A Novel of the Titanic, Suzanne Weyn. She’s a liar. The Titanic doesn’t enter the story until around page 200, and more time is spent on discussing the main character’s sister’s wedding that’s going to take place on board. The collision with the iceberg and the sinking are abbreviated into about two pages. Really. The book is much more about the spiritualism movement and Nikola Tesla than the Titanic. But I’m sure more people will read it (as I did) if it didn’t say Distant Waves: A Novel of an Intriguing, but Crazy Inventor and Even Crazier “Mediums” with Some Time Travel Thrown in for Good Measure— right?

68. Keep Out, Claudia, Ann M. Martin (BSC #56). I found some BSC books that I didn’t own at Mr. K’s! I have a weakness for the books I loved when I was little.

69. Claudia Kishi, Live from WSTO!, Ann M. Martin (BSC #85)

70. Ralph S. Mouse, Beverly Cleary. Somehow, I never actually read all of this book. I’ve read sections of it (I know because certain scenes seemed familiar), which I’m sure I probably read during snack time at the after-school program that I volunteered at during college. But the whole middle of the book, when Ralph stays at school and the class builds a maze…I have no recollection of that part of the story at all. So it’s going on the previously unread  list.

71. My Beautiful Disaster, Michelle Buckman. The companion novel to Maggie Come Lately, which I read last month. Not bad.

72. The Lonely Hearts Club, Elizabeth Eulberg. The main character’s name is Penny Lane Bloom, and her parents are huge Beatles fans. After getting fed up with the boys that she meets, she decides to start the Lonely Hearts Club. Soon, many other girls in her high school join because they’re fed up with boys, too. But of course, once Penny Lane swears off boys, she meets one who’s actually worth dating. I like the change Penny and the others make in the book–they turn from being girls who are defined by the guys in their lives to being girls who can date but not give up their close friendships. And of course, the book is chock full of Beatles trivia, lyrics, and other references, so I loved it. 🙂

73. Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher. The main character receives a package in the mail containing tapes recorded by his crush Hannah, who had committed suicide two weeks before. On the tapes, she explains every event that took place leading up to her decision. It seems that her goal was to either make her classmates feel incredibly guilty for not recognizing the signs or to encourage them to notice the signs of suicide in others (as the main character does in the end). Maybe I’m finally too far removed from the high school experience, but I didn’t relate enough to Hannah’s character. She seems to want to blame everyone else for not recognizing her subtle cries for help; however, at so many points in the narrative, she could have prevented some of the actions that led to her decision. She could have asked for help. I guess that this book does do a good job of revealing a high schooler’s narcissistic mindset. She’s so wrapped up in how cruel everyone around her is that she sometimes fails to notice others’ pain as well.

74. God is in the Pancakes, Robin Epstein. I really enjoyed this book. The main character Grace is a fifteen-year-old who works at a nursing home and becomes friends with an old man who has Lou Gehrig’s disease. When he asks her to help him die to escape the pain, she has to deal with the ramifications of just his asking the question. At the same time, her parents have recently divorced, her sister is dating a jerk, and Grace won’t admit that she’s interested in her best friend Eric. The great thing about this book is that Grace deals with typical high school drama as well as the heavy burden of losing a friend that she cares for.

Okay, so 3 months to go to the end of the year, and 26 more books to read. I’m not entirely sure I’ll make it all the way to 100, but I’ll keep going.

August Books

Previously unread books this month. Only 3. Hmmm. I think that’s because I’ve been re-reading more books lately than I was earlier in the year. I have 35 more to go to reach my goal, with 4 months left. It’s possible, so we’ll see. Meanwhile, here’s my August list:

63. Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins. The second book in the Hunger Games trilogy. Even better than the first, if that’s at all possible.

64. Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins. The final book in the trilogy. It’s action-packed, and the conflict is resolved, but I still believe Catching Fire is the best of the series. Hopefully, soon, I’ll post a review.

65. Maggie Come Lately, Michelle Buckman. A young adult novel by a Christian writer. Sometimes, Buckman tries a little too hard to write like a 16-year-old, and it comes off as forced and unnatural. Other times, she tries to hard to make sure the reader gets the moral and spiritual point she is trying to make. But all in all, this book was actually pretty decent.