Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck.

“No matter how good a man is, there's always some horse can pitch him.” 

For my #15in31 challenge, I decided to start small, with a slim volume by John Steinbeck called The Red Pony. It has been a long time since I've read any Steinbeck, but I went through a phase a couple years ago where I bought a bunch of his titles in hopes of reading his complete works (a goal I still want to accomplish, perhaps when I finish with Cather). In any case, this is a slim little volume about the same size as Of Mice and Men, so I thought it would make a great starting point for my challenge (see this post if you're lost).

Truthfully, I didn't know much about The Red Pony before reading it, which was probably a good thing. When I started, I thought it reminded me of Black Beauty, but that vibe slowly disappeared as I flew through the novella.

I actually don't see The Red Pony as a complete novel/novella. It reads more as 4 related parts loosely connected with similar character names. There is no real connective plotline, just characters who are reintroduced in each of the 4 chapters.

But there is a connective theme. This is definitely a coming of age story, as young Jody Tiflin learns about life on the ranch and the cycle of life and death. He also learns that adults he once thought were infallible aren't, and that you can be disappointed by life.

The characters are all well-defined from the beginning. Jody stars in all of the chapters, as a young boy who is facing the harsh reality of life on a ranch and growing up. His mother is a strong and constant presence in all 4 chapters, as she tries to protect Jody from some harsh realities, while also allowing him the opportunities to grow up when things don't go as planned. Jody's father, Carl, is a tough man with no outward love for his son. He's bogged down by the responsibilities of running a ranch and having a little boy running around. But he does his best to provide and give opportunities to Jody.

Billy Buck was my favorite character, and perhaps the most complex. As the hired hand on the ranch, Billy Buck is also the man with all the old-school knowledge-about horses, life, the weather, etc. Jody idolizes him and respects his opinions as fact, until Billy Buck fails. And while Steinbeck doesn't dwell on the harshness of the realization for Jody or Billy, it lingers in the remaining pages, reminding us that we all had moments where we realized the adults around us can't always fix everything.

It was a short, quick read, but definitely as complex as Steinbeck's other works. It left me thinking and eager to read more Steinbeck...perhaps this month for my challenge. I know I have Cannery Row sitting on my bookshelf, so you might see more Steinbeck coming up soon.

What did you think of The Red Pony? Any other Steinbeck you would recommend? I haven't read a great deal by him, but I'm eager to read more (I think I've only read Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, The Winter of our Discontent, and The Pearl in addition to this title).

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Weekly Wrap-up for October 4, 2015: On Being Busy and #15in31.

Hi everyone!

It has been a little while since I've done a weekly wrap-up kind of a post, so I thought it would be good to jump on this morning and catch up. I have a lot to get done today, now that I'm finally feeling semi-human, but I'm seeing this as a bit of a priority.

The truth is, during the school year, school and the work that goes into being a high school English teacher, takes precedence over everything else in my life. I determine what I can actually do at night based on what grading I have to do. I plan weekend activities around how much school work I have to do. It's really quite sad.

I have noticed that the last couple of years my at-home workload has gotten lighter. Probably because I am creating less new material to use in my classes (that's what happens when you teach a class multiple times-you have lots of things stored up, so you're not creating a lesson from scratch for every day of the week). I've also become a lot better about cramming in work at school and being more productive. That's hard for me because I don't really grade while the kids are working (I can't concentrate, and I inevitably get called on to help, which is fine because that's my job). In any case, I'm still working to create that work/home balance.

This year I made a goal to leave by 3:30 every day. That has yet to happen. Truthfully, I'm productive when I'm at the building after school. It's quiet because most teachers go home, and I have free reign of the copier! But I'm working towards getting my stuff done at school and bringing less home at night, with the exception of weekends. That's a hard balance, but I'm trying.

I'm telling you all this because for my own sanity, I do need to reestablish some time for myself, and that's the goal I have moving forward. I love my job, I'm good at it, but I need to spend some time doing other things.

The biggest thing that has fallen apart since getting a fulltime teaching job is reading. There are some days where I come home so mentally drained that the idea of picking up a book fills me with dread. That's when I binge-watch a show. But I'm okay with that. I'm not okay with going a month without picking up a book. So I'm trying to remedy that.

When the #15in31 challenge popped up in my Instagram feed, I debated for a moment before joining in. I know it's crazy. I rarely read 15 books in a month during the summer, so how would I do it during the school year? Ha! But why not try? So I am. I think this challenge is a great way to inspire myself to keep pushing forward with that work/home balance and jump back into the things I love doing-reading and writing about books.

I think it'll also serve as a great warm-up to November and NaNoWriMo. It's been a few years since I've participated, but I'm jumping in this year.

In any case, I had a great weekend of reading. Truthfully, the only reason it was so successful was because I was super-sick Thursday and Friday (I came home from school on Thursday with a 102 fever, so I called in for Friday and stayed in bed coughing and sneezing all day). But that meant a lot of time to read and relax and take a little pressure off myself. I ended up reading 4 books! You'll see reviews for them in the next couple weeks because I've already written them (look at me go!)

Anyway, I'm hoping I keep this balance going so that I can do more of the things I love doing. :)

Have a fabulous week!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

#15in31: Reading Challenge October 2015!

A few days ago, Andi at Estella's Revenge posted about a reading challenge she was undertaking in the month of October. After looking at it and mulling it over...for about 20 minutes, I decided to jump in and join the fun.

The #15in31 challenge is basically to read 15 titles in the month of October. Since that's rare for me even in a fabulous month of reading, it truly is a challenge. However, I think I can do it.

School is finally getting a calm point (it always seems crazy at the beginning of the year). I also have a couple free weekends, and the 24 hour readathon later this month. What better time to challenge myself?

And even if I fail to hit 15 books, at least I'll make some progress and hopefully put a dent in the piles of books I've been meaning to get to.

In choosing my books, I decided to go completely random and snatch things that I've been meaning to get to for awhile, some slim classics, and some fun reads. I think I have a good eclectic pile to pick from for the month, so hopefully I don't get bored. I also picked more than 15 books to give myself some variety. Let's take a look!

From left to right and top to bottom:
  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: I might be cheating by adding this to my list since I've already started it, but I do plan on finishing it this month, so....it'll count. 
  2. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells: I haven't read anything by Wells in quite some time, so I thought this would be a good short read (perhaps the day of the readathon). 
  3. Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather: This is another shorter read that I thought we be good for a one-sit read. I also keep meaning to get back into Cather, so this might be a good starting point. 
  4. The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards: I've had this title sitting on my shelf for a long time, so perhaps it might be time for me to get to it!
  5. Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier: I've read this once before-a long time ago-and I've been wanting to reread it at some point. I know it'll be a fast read, thus why I picked it. 
  6. March by Geraldine Brooks: This is another book that has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I love Little Women, so I know I'll like this one. It's also pretty slim. :)
  7. The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith: It's Smith. I'm not sure if it needs more explanation....but I did just get this in a book swap, and I've been holding onto it until I could devote an evening to it. 
  8. Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon: This is a newer release that I've been hearing a lot about. I have a hunch it'll be another fast read.
  9. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: This is a title that has also been sitting on my shelf for a really long time. I bought it shortly after it came out, but I just haven't gotten around to it! I think it is also perfect for the season, so I'm looking forward to reading it on a gross evening. 
  10. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: I might be the last person alive to read this. But based on what I know, I know it'll be another fast read.
  11. Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: I've been meaning to read this for ages. My copy is old, and it needs to be loved, I think.
  12. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: As soon as this book debuted I marked it as a title I needed to read. But I haven't gotten to it (are we sensing a trend?). It's a bit longer, but I think it'll be perfect for this month.
  13. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck: I wanted another short classic to read, and this was probably one of the shortest on my bookshelves. It's also been awhile since I've read any Steinbeck.
  14. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster: I loved the other Forster I read a few years ago-A Room with a View- so I have high hopes for this one.
  15. A Lost Lady by Willa Cather: Another Cather. I'm pretty sure this one is well loved, and after reading the back, it's close to the top of the pile.
  16. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: Fitting for this time of year? I think? It's also been some time since reading Gaiman (I think the last Gaiman I read was The Ocean at the End of the Lane), and that was a couple years ago...if I remember correctly.
  17. Stand-Off by Andrew Smith: Not going to lie, I'm probably going to read this one this weekend. Winger might be my favorite Smith title, so the sequel? Yes please.
  18. Gwendolen by Diana Souhami: This is an old ARC that I've held onto because it sounded so darn interesting.
  19. Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Wells: I've never gotten around to this one, even though I've meant to. I love The Glass Castle, so high hopes!
  20. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez: Yet another title I've been meaning to read for years. I also thought I owned a copy, but in my book culling this summer I couldn't find it. Thankfully our media center had it!
  21. Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson: This was an impulse grab from a media center display. It looked interesting and different from some of the other things I grabbed.
  22. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins: I've heard a lot of positives about this, and I need a sappy YA story. I do.
  23. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: I'm also sure I'm one of the last people to read this...a student keeps harassing me to read it, so I feel like I owe it to her (I convinced her to read The Martian and she loved it, so I need to return the favor).
  24. The Husband's Secret by Lianne Moriarty: I really liked What Alice Forgot, and this is the only other Moriarty title our media center had. 
  25. Not pictured, but probably more Fables....I'm really into the series, so I'm sure I'll read a couple volumes. I only have one more here that I haven't gotten to, but I'm hoping to pick up a few more.
There you have it. My super ambitious list of titles to read this month. I'll be updating my progress as much as possible and posting on instagram (@alliedanielson) as I get to each title. Let me know if you have any other fast reads to recommend!

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty.

“But maybe every life looked wonderful if all you saw was the photo albums.”

What Alice Forgot is not a book I would normally pick up. It doesn't scream to me that it's something I would really love, but after hearing rave reviews, I added it to my Amazon wishlist to investigate at some point the the future. And then, my book swap partner gifted it to me, so I picked it up one afternoon and read it straight through.

And that is why we don't judge books.

I ended up really love Moriarty's book. It was funny, entertaining, and gave me some things to think about. It also led me to checking out another of her books from our media center-The Husband's Secret (which is still sitting unread on my nightstand, but you know...).

What Alice Forgot opens with Alice coming to on the floor of her gym. She doesn't remember why she's there, or who she's with. In fact, she still thinks she's 29, newly married to her love, Nick, and expecting her first child. But no. She's actually 39, has three kids, and is in the midst of divorcing Nick.

It's not a truly original or groundbreaking premise for a book, but it is well-done. I think that Moriarty did a fabulous job of showing that relationships do change over time and that what we think we want forever may not be the same ten years down the road.

“Relationships don’t stay the same. There isn’t time.” 

As Alice has lost her memories of the last ten years, we, the readers, get to go along for the ride as she "meets" her children for the first time, sees a ten-years-older Nick, and watch as she struggles to understand why her priorities have changed so drastically. In some ways, it's a bit heartbreaking to see Alice battle her sense of self and what she thinks is most important.

Her relationship with Nick is what really drew me in. As someone who got married young (I married Matt when I was 24, but had been dating him since I was 16/17), I know first-hand that people can change drastically in a marriage. What you think you both want can and will change. Sometimes people change together (so far, that would be Matt and I), and sometimes we don't. Alice and Nick lost that connection, so she searches to find out why.

Alice uncovers a lot of secrets about herself along the way, and slowly begins to fill in the missing pieces of her life. Her journey gives a lot to think about. I mean, would my younger self be happy with where I am now? I don't know. But Alice is forced to face that over and over again. 

She's also forced to come to terms with her younger self...and allow herself to feel that freely again. As older Alice, she's lost sight of some of that whimsy. And younger Alice doesn't get the sterner, more serious older version. That's a good message for us-not to lose that sense of youth. 

“She had always thought that exquisitely happy time at the beginning of her relationship with Nick was the ultimate, the feeling they'd always be trying to replicate, to get back, but now she realized that was wrong. That was like comparing sparkling mineral water to French champagne. Early love is exciting and exhilarating. It's light and bubbly. Anyone can love like that. But love after three children, after a separation and a near-divorce, after you've hurt each other and forgiven each other, bored each other and surprised each other, after you've seen the worst and the best--well, that sort of a love is ineffable. It deserves its own word.”

There was a larger side story surrounding Alice's sister, Elisabeth, that I have to mention. Elisabeth is someone Alice used to be close to, so when she thinks she still has that closeness, she has to learn Elisabeth's story. Unlike Alice, who had 3 healthy kids, Elisabeth had struggled and struggled to get pregnant, having multiple miscarriages and going through rounds of medical interventions. It's a side story that in some places feels disjointed, but I appreciated it for being there.

In contrast to Alice, Elisabeth's life has been much different, and like Alice, I think she forgot who she used to be before being consumed with her infertility. But, in watching Alice, I think Elisabeth also learns to let go of what she has become and ends the novel much happier than she started.

I also appreciated the raw honesty of her story, as it's something I can understand on some level. It also added another layer to Alice's own transformation and challenges.

“Each memory, good and bad, was another invisible thread that bound them together, even when they were foolishly thinking they could lead separate lives. It was as simple and complicated as that.”

In all, What Alice Forgot was a great read and I know that more by Moriarty is in my future. I am curious to see how they turn this into film, since so much is in Alice's head, but Hollywood can supposedly make miracles happen, right? ;) Let me know what you thought about this one!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Young Adult Mini-Reviews!

I have a few books that have been sitting in my review pile for quite some time gathering dust. And since I don't have a ton to say on each of them, I thought a series of mini-reviews would be fitting!


Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol is a graphic novel that I read quite a few months ago. I had marked it as something I wanted to get my hands one for quite some time, and after our media specialist ordered it, I snatched it to read that weekend (the perks of being a teacher).

Anya, a recent Russian immigrant, doesn't fit in at her New England school. She wants to be a part of the popular crowd and blames that on her "Russian-ness." One afternoon, she falls into a hole where she finds the skeleton of Emily Reilly, a girl who died nearly 100 years before. Emily's ghost appears, and she tells her story to Anya.

When Anya returns home, a piece of Emily's skeleton came with her, so Emily's ghost continues to appear. At first, Anya is okay with this, as Emily helps her with her school work and with the dreamy boy she likes.

Then it gets flat out creepy. Emily's ghost starts to get a little aggressive, then violent, and the book spirals from there.

It's well done. And as someone who doesn't really like scary or suspenseful, this book had a lot going for it that kept me intrigued. The artwork is gorgeous and I think Brosgol really captured that teen angst and self-image dilemma in a realistic way.

A great, short read that is well worth it!

I've read I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak a few times before, and each time, I've loved it more and more.

We (meaning the Media Specialist and myself) included this in our book battle activity that we did back in the spring. It had been awhile since reading it, so I decided to pick it up and read it again to refresh my memory.

First, I forgot the amount of language in the book, so be warned going in. But other than that, I love the message of this book. Ed Kennedy, a teenager living in Australia, is lonely, going nowhere, and lost without his father. Then he witnesses a botched bank robbery and his world changes. He receives playing cards in the mail and each one has addresses. Not knowing what else to do, he visits the addresses and learns that he has to complete tasks for the people who live at that address.

Over the course of the novel, Ed grows. He changes. He realizes what's most important to him and comes to term with the things in his life that he has the ability to change.

The good thing is that most of the kids who read this as a part of the book battle loved it. It's not as popular as The Book Thief, but I love it as well.

The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima is a book that has been sitting on my shelves for years. I picked it up, as well as two sequels, in the Borders sales that took place when the stores were closing. I've eyed it a few times, but never jumped on reading it.

So, last school year a student suggested it to me and I finally gave it a try. And while I enjoyed it, it wasn't my favorite (I will read the sequels at some point and make a final decision).

In short, the book follows Jack, a young boy who has taken a certain medication all his life. He is told to stop taking it and voila! Magical powers and strength come surging to him! Okay, not really. But he does go through some training.

There's also a bit about an old war that seeks Warriors, like Jack, to fight on both sides. Warriors are now rare, so Jack is being scouted and hunted by both sides.

My biggest complaints about the novel surrounded some of the explanations and magical rules. There were bits and pieces not explained well enough for my liking and the final grand battle? I don't know. It lacked something. Perhaps I am took picky with my love for adult fantasy to really be drawn to this one, but it was a fast read and something I flew through. And I do want to read the sequels, so that says a great deal, if you ask me. ;)

This particular post has been sitting my drafts for quite some time, so I thought it was time to bring it out, edit, and post it before it disappears into drafts forever. :) I hope you enjoyed!