Blog about it

Your To-Read List: Are You a Pantser or Planner?

I love floating around the web, seeing people’s to-read lists. My favorites are bookstagrams that show the reader’s next month’s reads, all lined up in a colorful pile. The spines are all pretty, the queue labeled and ready.

For the life of me, I can’t seem to plan my month’s reads like some of you do. There are some books that I aim to read — especially if they are holds that come from the library — but my reading habits are all over the place.

I usually start a week with an intention: These are the next three books I will read, I’ll tell myself. But then a hold becomes available and that moves to the top of the pile. Or I read one book, realize it reminds me of something else that had intrigued me from a book I shelved several months ago, and I push the list aside and choose the intriguing one instead. (I figure, if I’m slowly chewing through my to-read pile, I’m doing all right.)

Book installation in San Francisco
This is how I feel when I try to organize my to-read pile. BOOKS EVERYWHERE! Seen while in San Francisco.

Here’s how one reading list unfurled, for example:

And on and on and on, a tiny thread from the previous book beckoning me to pick something similar, or needing a palate cleanser after steeping in the same mind space for too long.

There are also times when nothing in my to-read pile interests me, and I read dozens of summaries on inside flaps trying to find something to grab my attention. Even with over 800 books in my to-read queue, and probably 50 books in an unread pile on my bookcase, I’ll go and pick a tried-and-true favorite — A Little Princess or a Sarah Dessen or a Jane Austen.

do predetermine 20 or so titles that I want to read a year, via the Read Harder Challenge, but I fit those books in randomly, consulting my list if I feel like I’m at a gap in interests and I’ve read my favorites too recently already. (All told, I end up reading about 75-125 books a year.)

So now I’m curious — are you a person who plots out what you’ll read next, or do you float along choosing at whim? Or maybe something in between?

Illustration, Read Harder 2018, Review

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

the-bear-and-the-nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (Goodreads | Amazon)

I’ll admit it: I had no idea what this was about when I added it to my shelves. I kept hearing high praise for this book, bought it for Kindle during a flash sale, and when I was searching for a book to fit a Read Harder Challenge prompt, slotted the title into my “definitely will read in 2018” list. That said, I’m actually surprised that only came out last year; the amount of buzz surrounding this novel made me think it’d been around for much longer. It has earned its attention in the book world. It is beautifully written, keeps tension, is long but doesn’t feel long, and is an overall enjoyable read. It is part one of a trilogy.

Summary

In northern Rus’, Pyotr Vladimirovich leads his fellow farmers and townspeople in a modest village. His wife Marina gives birth to their fifth child and second daughter, Vasiliya, and dies. Vasya, as she’s nicknamed, is an unusual child who shares a special trait with her maternal lineage. Pyotr’s second wife — a devout woman — and a new priest arrive from Moscow and convince the townspeople to stop paying honor to the old gods. Soon Vasya connects the weakening of the town’s prosperity with the weakening of the old gods’ spirits, but will she help her people before it’s too late and the biggest danger comes?

It’s hard to summarize without giving away too much; I’ve kept my summary to the confines of the one on Goodreads but even then it feels like a lot — ah well. It’s a slow-moving tale, full of depth and detail. It is the first book of a trilogy, but there is enough of a sense of closure that I don’t feel the urge to rush out and read book 2 immediately.

Do you believe in fairy tales?

The story is so rich that it’s difficult to talk about one bit without also picking at a piece of a different strand; everything is so tightly woven together and beautifully balanced. I think the biggest thing I can say is that the characters really made this story. Vasya is a young, precocious girl who turns out to be a great heroine. The reader is with Vasya from her birth to her teen years, so we see the progression of her abilities, the maturation of how she interacts with her family, and the way she observes the other souls around her. I especially love how she interacted with the priest, Father Konstantin, who is determined to make the entire village worship only one god. She’s respectful without being meek, opinionated without being too headstrong.

Vasya has grown up listening to her nurse, Dunya, tell stories over the fire. In this part of Rus’ (medieval Russia), families left out offerings for the old gods while also starting to worship the newer teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of old vs. new, and I really liked how every character, from each of Vasya’s siblings to her stepmother to the priest, managed their faith and dealt with their religious opinions differently… like real people! No one felt like a caricature. When a character pushed too hard or became even more vehement about their convictions, it was because they felt it was their moral duty.

Magical creatures!

Arden weaves in a lot of fairy-tale creatures — the Russian equivalents of sprites and vampires and gods. There is a moment in the book (I won’t describe the context so you can discover the story bit on your own) when a rusalka (sort of a Slavic mermaid or lake nymph) tries to draw a character into the lake for a meal, as rusalkas are wont to do. Here’s my illustration:

original illustration for the bear and the nightingale by elissa

It takes a lot for me to get drawn into these dark fairy tale stories. The most recent one I can think of was S. Jae-Jones’ Wintersong which is sort of similar in style and feel but set in Germany. I thought everything was pitch-perfect — atmosphere, dialogue, descriptions,  tension, action sequences — until I hit a certain point.

Here be spoilers

If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to be spoiled, stop at this point.

I did not like the battle at the end of the book. Something about it was just so off to me. The tension throughout the book was so perfect, and we knew that it was leading to a climax, but I didn’t expect it to be an all-out battle with kicking and fighting and such. I expected the spirits to act differently, be sneakier. Here is the dark energy, the upyr with its creepy side-crawl drinking blood from people in their beds. The creepy and subtle mystery of the Bear and the dark spirits, their growing energy, were what drew me in. The battle was too brazen and out there. It was sort of like Stranger Things season 1 (mild spoiler for ST) when you don’t know what is attacking the deer, but then in the final episode they flick the lights on in the classroom and you see the Demogorgon. It’s like, oh, that. That’s kinda silly. 

I understand why, story-wise, the battle had to happen — the elements to remove Anna, have Vasya grow from the death of her father, showing the bonding between herself and the white stallion — but I’m allowed to pout.

Stylistically, this book is gorgeous

The dark atmosphere, descriptions of textures and sounds, the deepening mystery of the Bear… everything is just so beautiful. This is a sit-on-the-couch-under-a-blanket-with-a-cup-of-hot-cocoa type of book. Extra marshmallows. Extra cats.

I gave it 4.5/5 stars. Almost perfect, but hit one wrong note for me. Maybe I’m just picky. (What did you think?)

If you like my reviews, you can show appreciation by buying through my Amazon links, which give me a few pennies if you make a purchase of your own. 

Blog about it

What Is Your Book-Acquiring Strategy?

A little while ago, I got curious and decided to add up my book spending for the years 2016 and 2017. (I do not recommend doing this unless you’re really good at keeping to your book budget or have deep pockets.) I do have a book-buying problem, though I’m trying to do better this year by reading a lot of the books I already own and borrowing from the library and from friends. But it made me wonder: what are other people’s “book acquiring” strategies?

A note: I’m at a point in my life where I can be a little more lax with money — husband and myself both make a decent wage, no outstanding debt besides our mortgage, and no children — so books are where my money goes. I happily support authors and local bookstores by buying new releases full-price. This is a luxury I never had when I was younger and struggling, so it’s something that pleases me a lot now.

 

Here is my hierarchy for how I acquire books:

Book of the Month is always churning in the background: Typically, I receive one new book a month via BOTM. They’re new releases and I usually love what I pick, so I appreciate the service. (Here’s a post where I rank my BOTM picks and give a short review for each.) BOTM also offers add-ons for some new releases that aren’t chosen by their judges, like John Green’s newest or re-issues of socially relevant books.

High Priority – Local Bookstores: When there’s a new release by an author I’m following and I just have to have it first, I go to my local bookstores. I’m in Austin and mix it up between BookPeople (general interest, YA, anything in high demand) and BookWoman (feminist or female authors). These stores are also my go-to for gifts during the holidays.

bookpeople in austin
If it’s a new release I need now-now-now, I happily pay full price at local bookstores to support both store and author

Then, Libraries: If I’m shopping in the above stores for fun, and I discover a book that sounds interesting, I always check the publish date. If it’s older than two years, I try to find it at the library instead of adding it to my cart. (The stuff I find while browsing — without a friend’s recommendation — usually isn’t a mind-blowing read. I’ve purchased a few books based on browsing-interest and I think I’ve only been really happy about that a handful of times.)

I rarely rely on the library for new releases unless I’ve anticipated the release and can get on the wait list early. I hate waiting 3 months for a book to be available, and I also hate feeling the pressure to read it quickly and return it because there are even more people in the queue after me.

Lower Priority – Half-Price Books: If the book is a classic or mass-market and a few years old, I will look for it at HPB. I have purchased new releases for big names at HPB before — they usually have a display of the anticipated “big hit” for 20% off — but typically choose HPB for older stuff. HPB is great for books I’ve read from the library, enjoyed a lot, and want to own for re-reads.

Remember those ho-hum impulse-buys from BookPeople I mentioned above? I sell those books I know I won’t read again to HPB so I can buy more!

Add-ons and “in a pinch” by Amazon: If it’s a book I need by a certain time and can’t find locally, the hold list is too long, etc. (book club picks are like this sometimes) I will buy it on Amazon Marketplace.

I also rarely buy Kindle books at full-price, but I’m signed up for email digests from Goodreads that let me know when e-books go on sale. I’ve bought so many best-sellers and books in my to-read pile on flash sale for $1.99 that my Kindle is full of excellent reads! I’m tried to quell my Kindle impulse buys once I realized how much these little micro-transactions can add up, but I probably buy a few 2-buck-titles a month anyway.

powells bookstore in portland
I’ve started buying a book at a local bookstore every time I travel. It’s my way of getting lasting souvenirs!

Randomizer – Bookstores while traveling! I’ve started buying books from a local bookstore when I travel, sort of like my way of souvenir shopping. I never know what book it will be and usually pick something that is on my to-read list and the cover fits the color palette of the place I’m visiting. I kind of love it. I’ve visited Powell’s in Portland, Skylight in LA, Brazos Books in Houston, Bethany Beach Books in Delaware, Marfa Book Company in Marfa, etc.

Lowest Priority – Netgalley and Goodreads Giveaways: I tried to get into the Netgalley game, to review books early so that I could get free books for titles I really want to read, but found that I hated going through untested books and wasting my time on books I wasn’t super excited about (just kinda interested in), so this has fallen to the bottom of my book hierarchy. I’m still a member, but I don’t think I’ve touched the latest I requested from them for at least 4 months. So it goes. There’s so much else to read!

And I’ve never won a Goodreads giveaway, so, there’s that.

How about you? What is your book-getting strategy? Do you have a hierarchy of book acquisition too?

Blog about it, Illustration

Yay New Header!

I’d been meaning to change my blog header image for the longest time from the WordPress default, but didn’t know what to change it to. Now that I’ve started drawing a little bit for the site, I decided to illustrate myself! haha.

This is my dream library — loads of built-in bookshelves, full of books and fun bookends. A cup of cocoa and a plate of chocolate-chip cookies (no nuts) are set out on a nearby table. And I have my three cats close at hand.

(A friend, after I showed her the work-in-progress: “You need more cats.”

Me: “Oh, just you wait.” 😆 )

Here’s a crop of the scene. You can see the full image if you click over from your reader to my actual blog. :)

 

elissa-header-cropped2

(Time taken: 6 hours)

warcross marie lu header
Illustration

Introducing Illustration Scenes

After my last book review for Warcrossin which I mentioned how much I loved a certain visual that an early scene conveyed, I sort of started obsessing about how that image would look in a movie. And then, as I am compelled to do every so often, I decided to paint it out.

I just got an iPad Pro and cut my teeth on the program by painting this scene in ProCreate.

I flop on my mattress and it lets out a loud squeak. The ceiling and walls are awash in neon blue from the liquor mart across the street. I lie still, listening to the constant, distant wail of sirens coming from somewhere outside, my eyes fixed on an old water stain on the ceiling.

In hindsight, it was probably an over-ambitious project for a first ProCreate illustration (a full scene, with background, foreground, detail, multiple people, and multiple points of light and shadow) but I really wanted to capture the glow of the neon light from the SPIRITS sign across the street (you can see the “TS”, which IMO was more photogenic than -OR from LIQUOR). ProCreate logged how long it took for me to paint this, and amid slowdowns from the learning curve to figure out how this program works, it took me 14 hours. (loooolll)

But I really like it! I can’t guarantee that I’ll post an illustration for every book reviewed here — because even if I can halve that time, that’s time away from reading, and my to-read pile is already precariously high — but if there’s a specific thing that needs to be illustrated, in my mind, I’ll try to include it.

warcross-by-elissa
A scene from Marie Lu’s Warcross, imagined and painted by me

So here’s Emika, in her favorite tank top, worrying while she lays on her mattress on the floor. She’s separated from her roommate Keira (who is plugged into Warcross) by a bunch of cardboard boxes flattened out and taped together to make a quick wall that doesn’t quite go high enough to the ceiling. Emika brightened her side of the room with a string of Christmas lights and magazine covers that show her idol, Hideo Tanaka (shown here on TIME). Marie Lu described how Emika had her father’s painting propped up nearby, as well as a map of Brooklyn.

I added the image to the Warcross review, which you can read here. I hope you like my illustration!!

emika-chen-detail
A detail of Emika, her rainbow hair, full sleeve, old crappy phone, and a pair of old Warcross glasses on her head
warcross marie lu header
Review, Young Adult

Book Review: Warcross

warcross

Warcross by Marie Lu (Goodreads | Amazon)

Usually, I am late to series. I read Harry Potter for the first time when the last book was released. I think I started The Lunar Chronicles when the penultimate book was out. I was given the first book in The Raven King series when three were out already. My husband told me to read Game of Thrones when… well, that one doesn’t count. The point is, I’m always late to book series, so even though I’d heard a lot of chatter about Marie Lu’s Warcross, and I nonchalantly started it while on a plane, I was stunned — nay, dismayed — to find out that I was actually early to a series for once! That I could not, in fact, buy the next one; that it had not even been written yet. “No!” I screamed, in our vacation villa. “What happens neeeeexxxtt?!”

And so that is how I will begin my review of Warcross. #sorrynotsorry

Summary

Emika Chen is down to the last seven dollars in her bank account and facing eviction when she is stiffed out of her latest paycheck. The 18-year-old, rainbow-haired bounty hunter and gifted hacker is now desperate for money. She decides to hack into the opening ceremony of the biggest video game event of the year, the Warcross Championships, in order to steal a valuable game piece; instead, Emika glitches her character into the games. Soon, Warcross’ creator Hideo Tanaka offers Emika an inside job into the Championships to uncover a greater hacker and threat to the entire Warcross world. What Emika learns will upset both the virtual world and the real one.

A little Black Mirror, a little Pacific Rim…

I’m not a gamer or a hacker, so I don’t know how accurate some of this book was in terms of technicality, but it was believable enough to me. A lot of books don’t do so well with integration of the fandom that it is trying to describe, but the world that Emika lives in is completely believable. Warcross is both a game and a life tool, inside and outside of virtual reality, and its union across platforms totally made sense to me. This book reminded me of all the well-written parts of things I already liked: Black MirrorPacific Rim, a little Crazy Rich Asians, a touch of Ready Player One. 

  • People’s actions in real life can influence their standing in the games. For instance, Emika visiting Tokyo gives her extra points and levels-up her character in the Warcross world. Like “Nosedive” in Black Mirror.
  • Warcross tech includes glasses that are neurally linked. There’s a scene where Emika tries on new glasses and it calibrates to her brain by asking her to look up, down, and side to side. It reminded me a bit of the neural handshake in Pacific Rim.
  • Hideo Tanaka sweeps in, cancels Emika’s debt, and flies her out on his private jet. He has private restaurants and bathhouses and yeah we could say that he’s a little Fifty Shades of Christian Grey but I’d prefer to think of him as Nicholas Young instead.

The tiny touches that Lu wrote in, like Gucci being the official sponsor of the Warcross Tournament, were awesome and I loved them.

Lu is a beautiful writer; I loved a lot of the descriptions, the contrast between the dusty blue grit of Emika’s everyday life and the bright technicolor of the Warcross games.

I flop on my mattress and it lets out a loud squeak. The ceiling and walls are awash in neon blue from the liquor mart across the street. I lie still, listening to the constant, distant wail of sirens coming from somewhere outside, my eyes fixed on an old water stain on the ceiling.

I really want Lu to get a movie deal, because I think this would be gorgeous. (Who knows if it will happen — it may be too close to a similar virtual/real world game movie, Ready Player One, to get made. But I think this is the stronger book of the two. If we even have to compare them at all.)

painted book review
A scene from Marie Lu’s Warcross, imagined and painted by me

A diverse set of characters

Let’s talk about characters! Lu writes a diverse cast. Emika is Chinese-American; wealthy entrepreneur Hideo is Japanese (and studied at Oxford so he has a beautiful British accent hayyy); Warcross is played by people all over the world, so the Championships have an array of gamers of all skin tones and body types, including a well-known heartthrob in a wheelchair.

There were a few moments where I had to really stretch to suspend my disbelief about Emika — she’s poor but will spend the money to keep dyeing her hair in a rainbow of colors, and as someone who has self-dyed before, rainbow hair is hard to keep fresh, and expensive since you’re buying multiple colors. There’s also a moment where she looks at code and notices what’s wrong with it in minutes, and Hideo says in wonder that it took his best people weeks to find the same issue. That said, Emika is a great character. A little rough around the edges, but with a good heart. Her backstory of how she gained her criminal record made me want to cheer. She’s decently good at Warcross, but she’s not as good as the professional players and is schooled by a few.

Here be spoilers

If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to be spoiled, skip this bit.  Continue reading “Book Review: Warcross”

Read Harder 2018

Read Harder Challenge Update: How’s It Going?

Well, it’s mid-March and that’s a good enough reason for me to check in on the 2018 Read Harder Challenge! How are y’all doing with your individual challenges? I had planned the challenge around a lot of books I already owned and wanted to read already, which helped with accessibility; others were readily available from the library. At ~25% into the year, I’m at 11/24 of my RHC list. (Full list: Part 1, Part 2)

I’ve changed a few of my book choices as well. (Bolded books are ones I’ve read; Italicized are changed prompts.)

brighthour

#1. A book published posthumously | The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs

Nina Riggs, a mother of two, learned she had a spot of breast cancer at 37. Though she underwent chemotherapy for it, the cancer was aggressive and spread, leaving her with a terminal diagnosis before her 40th birthday. This book was published after her death.

Her poet background really shone in this book, and though her writing was beautiful, it didn’t tear me up like When Breath Becomes Air did. Maybe it’s because I am not a mother, and the author’s worries about leaving her children behind are not something that I have ever considered. As a human with human emotions, I read her story and thought, Fuck, this isn’t fair, but life isn’t fair. She describes the unfairness of life so well, but it’s already something I feel familiarity with, so it doesn’t hit as hard. It’s more like an agreement: Yeah, shit sucks.

Many of my friends said they were leaking tears throughout their entire read, but I found myself quiet and introspective. I am curious how others felt about this book.

#2. A book of true crime | Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawson

Read my review here.

rebecca

#3. A classic of genre fiction | Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

HOLY MOLY. It took a week for me to read the first 30 pages and I was worried I wouldn’t love this book as much as some of my very vocal friends, but once I got over the initial hump, I couldn’t get enough of the story. This is some masterful storytelling; I keep thinking over parts that led me one way while the subtle groundwork for the impending swerve was being laid out behind it… the story that I thought I was going to get was nothing like the story I wound up getting, and I loved it. I devoured the last half in one sitting, up late into the night, and wanted to know the end but also didn’t want to reach the end. I will probably have to write a real review about this and the Hitchcock movie that I watched right after I finished the book.  Continue reading “Read Harder Challenge Update: How’s It Going?”